Sunday, March 27, 2005

Spring Break

I'll be computer-free for the next five days, enjoying extended time with my family, so I won't be posting anything.

In The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires identifies six marks of the Christian mind and devotes a chapter to each. They are: its supernatural orientation, its awareness of evil, its conception of truth, its acceptance of authority, its concern for the person, and its sacramental cast. Here's a selection from his chapter on its supernatural orientation:
The Catholic tradition of our Church is that the Christian life is a life for the full man. There is no room in Christendom for a culture of the spirit which neglects the mind, for a discipline of the will which by-passes the intellect. It may be that the dominant evil of our time is neither the threat of nuclear warfare nor the mechanization of society, but the disintegration of human thought and experience into separate unrelated compartments. . . In so far as the Church nurtures the schizophrenic Christian, the Church herself contributes to the very process of dismemberment which it is her specific business to check and counter. For the Church's function is properly to reconstitute the concept and the reality of the full man, faculties and forces blended and united in the service of God. The Church's mission as the continuing vehicle of divine incarnation is precisely that - to build and rebuild the unified Body made and remade in the image of the Father. The mind of man must be won for God.

The New Choc'late Cross

In an attempt to reach Christian consumers who might balk at celebrating Easter with chocolate bunnies, Russell Stover Candies Inc. is marketing a chocolate cross. Unfortunately for them, however, members of the targeted audience object to the idea. Today's Chicago Tribune reports Rev. John Vakulskas, a Catholic priest in Alton, Iowa as describing the cross as being "in poor taste."

Anyway, happy Resurrection Day, all! He is risen indeed!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Morality and Reality

In today's New York Times op-ed section, columnist David Brooks (free subscription required) claims that the arguments on both sides of the Terri Schiavo debate are flawed. Social conservatives insist that all human life is of equal value and warn of the dangers involved in ascribing greater worth to some individuals on the basis of their ability to function on higher levels than others. "The true bright line is not between lives," he writes, "but between life and death"

While recognizing the moral force of this line of thinking, Brooks says that its flaw lies in that "for most of us, especially in these days of advanced medical technology, it is hard to ignore distinctions between different modes of living. In some hospital rooms, there are people living forms of existence that upon direct contact do seem even worse than death." A further weakness, according to Brooks, is the fact that the majority of Americans believe in some kind of life beyond death in which case it's not necessary to "cling ferociously to this life." "Why not allow the soul to ascend to whatever is in store for it?" This is to resort to the same kind of pragmatism he later criticizes liberals for. (Unfortunately, I've heard Christians use the same argument, one that if consistently applied could be used to justify the murder of any believer experiencing adversity).

Social liberals, on the other hand, defend the right of each individual or family to determine for themselves when life is no longer worth living."They don't emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence." Brooks accurately notes:
The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own line separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste.
What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.
I agree with Brooks that the liberal argument is flawed. It is self-referentially incoherent in that it denies the existence of objective moral truths in which case the appeal to end Terri's life on the grounds that it is the merciful and right thing to do is undercut. Where Brooks errs, however, is in claiming that the pro-life argument is flawed as well. He has not identified a flaw in the argument. Rather, he has described the difficulty we often face in consistently applying a pro-life ethic. It doesn't follow from the fact that we find a particular course of action hard, that that action is not right. The fault doesn't lie in the argument but in us.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Whole Story: Biblical Narrative & Counseling

In their book The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen note the piecemeal fashion in which we're prone to read the Bible along with its detrimental results:

Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits - theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author's intention to shape our lives through its story. All human communities live out of some story that provides a context for understanding the meaning of history and gives shape and direction to their lives. If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should. Idolatry has twisted the dominant cultural story of the secular Western world. If as believers we allow this story (rather than the Bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will manifest not the truths of Scripture, but the lies of an idolatrous culture. Hence, the unity of Scripture is no minor matter; a fragmented Bible may actually produce theologically orthodox, morally upright, warmly pious idol worshippers.
Among the "stories" that exercise great formative power in our culture are those told by the psychotherapeutic communities. These stories are practically inescapable. We hear them not only in professional counseling offices but on television, the radio and in casual conversations. When we see ourselves as characters in these stories instead of the biblical narrative of creation, corruption, redemption and consummation, phrases like self-esteem, self-love, needs, and codependence ring loudly in our ears, drowning out biblical themes like idolatry, self-denial, faith, and transforming grace. We may not completely abandon the Bible's story but we don't really expect it to speak as meaningfully about our problems as do the therapeutic tales.

In his unfortunately out-of-print book, Taking the Word to Heart: Self & Others in an Age of Therapies, Robert C. Roberts writes: "the kind of persons we become (the kind of character we develop) is a function of how we think about ourselves." This is just another way of making the same point as Bartholomew and Goheen. Whatever story functions authoritatively in our lives will shape us and our interpretation of ourselves. Roberts refers to the various schools of therapy as "alternative spiritualities" and offers the following warning:
The danger is that these psychologies may to one degree or another replace Christianity without most people even noticing that any substitution has taken place. In some instances the influence of the therapies -even from within the church - may be so strong that our character and relationships are no longer Christian but are now Rogerian, or family-systemic, or Jungian, or rational-emotive...In short, under the influence of these psychologies, our souls may turn out Therapeutic rather than Christian.
Too often believers regard the cultivation of the intellectual life as an abstract, impractical pursuit but it need not be. We should seek to think well so we can love (both God and neighbor) well. I'm grateful for the efforts of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation towardhelping the church to think well about how each of our stories is a subplot in the grand narrative whose central figure is Jesus Christ. David Powlison is one of those at the forefront of this work. Yesterday, Justin Taylor provided an informative introduction to Powlison along with a bibliography of his writing at Between Two Worlds. That entry prompted this one.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Spirituality in the Real World

If you've ever thought that your daily routine and relationships are obstacles to real intimacy with God, you should check out this interview with Eugene Peterson at Peterson is the author of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language and the recently released Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology.

When asked whether misunderstanding about the nature of spirituality even in Christian circles has anything to do with the New Age movement, Peterson replies:
The New Age stuff is old age. It's been around for a long time. It's a cheap shortcut to - I guess we have to use the word - spirituality. It avoids the ordinary, the everyday, the physical, the material. It's a form of Gnosticism, and it has a terrific appeal because it's a spirituality that doesn't have anything to do with doing the dishes or changing diapers or going to work. There's not much integration with work, people, sin, trouble, inconvenience.

I've been a pastor most of my life, for some 45 years. I love doing this. But to tell you the truth, the people who give me the most distress are those who come asking, "Pastor, how can I be spiritual?" Forget about being spiritual. How about loving your husband? Now that's a good place to start. But that's not what they're interested in. How about learning to love your kids, accept them the way they are?
Peterson also has some worthwhile thoughts about the dangers involved in using the language of the culture to interpret the gospel (e.g., speaking of "intimacy" with God).

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Resurrection: Real but not Historical

Something happened that first Easter morning that was powerful enough to embolden Jesus' band of followers and lead them to change the weekly day of worship from the Jewish Sabbath to the first day of the week. But whatever it was, it wasn't Jesus being raised from the dead. In fact, the resurrection doesn't have anything at all to do with Jesus' body. That's the position Bishop John Shelby Spong sought to defend against evangelical apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig in The Great Resurrection Debate , an event broadcast live last night by the Church Communication Network.

According to Spong, who described himself as not being a "biblical literalist," it's not possible to be a Christian and deny the "reality of the resurrection." But, says Spong, this reality should not be understood as a physical return from death. What appear to be historical narratives are more properly understood as symbolism employed by Jesus' followers to convey their powerful and ineffable "God experience." A God-experience, says Spong, must be put into human words and our language is not big enough to envelop that inbreaking of eternity.

Granted, our language is not capable of capturing God's totality. But that's not to say that language is incapable of communicating any truths about God. As Francis Schaeffer noted, God has not given us exhaustive truth, but He has given us true (though partial) Truth.

Once I heard Bishop Spong's take on the inadequacy of language to describe God, I patiently waited for him to refute himself by ascribing some attributes to God. I wasn't disappointed. In his closing statements, just a few moments after saying "I cannot tell you who God is or what God is," the bishop proceeded to affirm that God is the source of love and the ground of all being.

It was evident to me that what really motivates Spong is the desire to make the Bible and Christianity plausible to the modern mind. This means adopting a hermeneutic that takes all references to miraculous events as poetic symbolism. If we fail to open the Scriptures to scholarship (by which Bishop Spong means the naturalistic rationalism assumed by the so-called biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar of which he is a member) we will end up twisting twenty-first century minds into first century pretzels. 

As I watched and listened to the exchange, the words of C. S. Lewis in the first chapter of Miracles, kept coming to mind:
...the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our sense, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our sense are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.
Another Lewis quote, this one from"Learning in War-Time," is likewise appropriate. "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." Those interested in learning how to answer the bad philosophy of the Jesus Seminar will find this article by Dr. Craig of interest.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

OK, I Broke

I did it. I leaped into the blogosphere despite my initial skepticism and reluctance. The more I kept trying to push it to the back of my mind, the more it crept to the front. What were some of the factors that convinced me to take my leap? Well, first there was listening to Hugh Hewitt and reading his book, Blog. Then there was Tod Bolsinger's post, Blog, for Christ's Sake, in which he offers persuasive reasons for pastors to join the fray. Most recently, it was an article linked to from Stand to Reason's blog which suggests that blogging is good for the brain.

A few words about my blog's name. It's my way of paying tribute to Harry Blamires, a man whose book The Christian Mind: How Should A Christian Think?, made a lasting impression on me. Tears filled my eyes when I read the quotation cited in the header. Someone had recognized and put into words the alienating experience that was often mine as a follower of Christ who enjoyed the world of ideas, study, and reflection. Someone was saying that the life of the mind need not be in conflict with life in the Spirit. Blamires' description of Christendom in the early '60's could have just as well been written today:

Christianity is emasculated of its intellectual relevance. It remains a vehicle of spirituality and moral guidance at the individual level perhaps; at the communal level it is little more than an expression of sentimentalized togetherness...The mental secularization of Christians means that nowadays we meet only as worshipping beings and as moral beings, not as thinking beings.