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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason

In Scripture, Abraham is tested by God. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Most of us know this story and most of us can recognize that Abraham is also a type of God the Father sacrificing God the Son. (If you'd like to read it yourself, it can be found in Genesis 22:1-19.)

I believe that this story actually happened. I believe that it is not only true as a type or a parable but as a factual occurrence in history. I believe the story is true.

If we understand the story, we can recognize that the "testing" of Abraham isn't a testing of his integrity. God is not trying to see if Abraham is willing to violate universal morality (such as "do not kill"). Instead, God is testing Abraham to see if he's willing to sacrifice his legacy. Isaac is the only chance for Abraham's life to go on through his offspring and as confirmation, the reward for Abraham's passing of the test is that he will be blessed through descendants "as numerous as the stars."

But if we hold up this story to morality, God's morality, we must instantly be quite horrified. I don't know how to reconcile the factual nature of the story with a morality that states murder is wrong, something almost every culture at every time has known. But whatever Abraham must have thought or felt, we know how we would think or feel in this situation. The difference is that reason must play a vital role in our faith.

Many Christians view reason as the enemy of faith. But reason and even common sense have been an aid to Christians throughout the ages from St. Augustine to St. Aquinas to even contemporaries like C. S. Lewis (apologetics is merely reasonable argumentation). Pope Benedict XVI stated famously that faith and reason are not at odds and that if it appears they are, then you're misunderstanding at least one of them.

In the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas we can affirm that "all truth is God's truth." We need not fear what Christians at times have thought stood in opposition to their faith and interpretation of Scripture - a heliocentric solar system, women learning and in leadership roles, the belief that slavery was wrong despite its presence in the Bible, and, in our modern day, things like evolution.

You don't have to believe in evolution, of course, but don't be afraid of science. We continue to push back against reason because we feel threatened. Rather than giving reason license to inform and enrich our faith, we wish to banish its authority altogether. This is because doing so is easier than having to negotiate reason's influence on us. We might not like where reason leads us.

Imagine for a moment that you are in Abraham's place. You hear an audible, physical, divine voice asking you to kill your child, or your spouse, or your parents. You believe that it's God. Would you go through with it? I do not wish to and cannot say that Abraham was wrong because I am neither an exegete nor do I fully understanding the cultural and religious attitudes of the time. But I can say, without a doubt, that in our own hypothetical scenario, you would be absolutely wrong to go through with it. Here is where reason must inform faith and we would all have to say, "No."

Reason easily leads us to the realization that killing is wrong - grossly wrong - and that our faith confirms this time and again. The point I'm trying to make isn't really about an impossible hypothetical situation or that killing is wrong, which we all know. The point of all this is that we must not shut out reason when it comes to faith. We must let it have a voice and the power to move us from positions we previously thought immovable. In the above scenario, we need not claim that God is wrong or immoral. We need only take reason, "killing is wrong," and apply it to our situation. We would have to conclude that the voice we heard wasn't really God or that it was imagined or something else that can reconcile the situation.

Many Christians continue to feel threatened by reason and arguments, by facts, and by science, and Evangelicals are leading the way. Evangelicals are almost twice as likely to disbelieve evolution as Catholics or Mainline Protestants. Broadly speaking, Christians seem to be generally averse to reason (and science) affecting their faith. In another poll, Christians were asked to imagine a scenario where clear evidence was presented that actually proved, clearly beyond any doubt, that some of their beliefs were false. A clear majority responded that in such a scenario, they would continue to believe those things anyway.

Almost the exact same question was once put to the Dalai Lama, who, in his usual style, gave a simple yet profoundly brilliant answer. A reporter essentially asked His Holiness what he would do if tomorrow his religion were proven wrong. He responded that if that were the case, he supposed he would have to give up his religion. But then he returned a question to the reporter by asking how someone could possibly show such a proof. The reporter, of course, had no answer.

Do you see? The Dalai Lama was open to reason and yet it posed no real threat to him or his beliefs. Again, all truth is God's truth. Some of us fear reason because we believe it challenges God or that it's human pride to think human things like "science" know best. But ours is a faith that accepts all of reality. The problem comes when we see a conflict and decide, "No matter what evidence comes, I'll believe the way I believe until I die." We mistake immovability for faith-filled courage.

I am not arguing that religious belief needs to be supported by the scientific method or formal logic. I am not saying that reason will guide every facet of your faith (how could it ever explain the Trinity and a thousand other mysteries?). But reason needs to be given a voice for informing your faith. If something is not true, reason doesn't have the power to prove that it is true. And if a religious belief is indeed true, reason cannot damage it. Like the Dalai Lama, we should adopt an attitude of openness to reason, knowing we have nothing to fear. 

It's important to remember that many spiritual realities transcend reason. Note: they don't contradict reason, they just overcome it. And we must remember that reason is ultimately an aid to our faith. Be wary of anyone who says reason, facts, and the natural world are dangerous to your faith. While an exultation of reason as the only way of knowing is certainly dangerous (as with the New Atheists), a banishment of reason makes for a shallow faith, easily shaken by the slightest disturbance. Those who can't hold a faith informed by reason aren't in a position to hear anything but what they want to hear. And that's a decidedly bad hermeneutic for anyone.

Related Posts:
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us
God in Evolution

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sin Doesn't Hurt God, It Hurts You

I suppose I've been troubled by what I've heard my whole life about sin. For the longest time, I pictured God as a divine judge with a literal book in which was written every little thing you did wrong, no matter how small. And there was another book, a giant reference manual. In this book, God took your sins and used them to look up the corresponding appropriate punishment.

The "upside" of the story, I was told, was that if you were a Christian Jesus would come along and overwrite the consequences for all your sins, a sort of divine posting of bail. You did something wrong, you deserved to be punished, but Christ got you out of it.

And for years, I've thought this is how sin works. You sin, you deserve a punishment that God's role as judge demands, but grace gets you off the hook. But I think there's something not only unhelpful in this story but actually something wrong with it.

If we view sin as merely actions that deserve punishments, we've missed the point entirely. Instead we should borrow something from our Eastern brothers and sisters and think of sin as similar to karma.

"Karma" is the Sanskrit word for "action" and is used as "volition" in Buddhism. Karma is not what most of us think. We tend to think of karma as rewards or punishments that we've accumulated for ourselves. That view is not unlike our story of the divine judgment of God. Instead, as Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula notes, karma simply means action and it is in the nature of an action, the karma, that the effect is produced.

In this way, good action - good karma - produces good effects. Bad action - bad karma - produces bad effects. It doesn't produce these because a divine judge is dealing out rewards or punishments. It produces these because an action by it's very nature can't help but have one result. Like pushing a hockey puck in a certain direction on an ice rink, good karma has good results and vice versa. If you push the puck to the right, it can't help but glide in that direction. If you push it to the left, it can't help but keep moving left. It will never switch directions, it just keeps going where you've sent it.

It's helpful to think of sin as similar to karma in this way. While it's theologically true that sin has eternal consequences for your soul, sin's consequences are first and foremost in the here and now. People who exercise avarice, lust, or anger do not feel fulfilled. They do not exist in a happy place. You've heard "virtue is its own reward." Well, sin is its own punishment. Like karma, sin can't help but produce negative consequences. Drop a ball from a great height and it can't help but fall. Sin is like that. It can't help but have negative effects for you in the present.

C. S. Lewis said that each sin committed served to orient you slightly away from the direction of God. Each time you sin, you turn a little more and a little more until you no longer have a clear perspective of God. And that's the real danger.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich said that the reason God doesn't want us to sin is that it keeps us from seeing God as God truly is and from seeing ourselves as we truly are. That's it! God doesn't get upset with our sin because we broke rules or because we made God cry. God simply desires we not sin because doing so pulls a cloak over our eyes. It fogs our mirror. Sin's consequences punish us in the present by clouding our view of Reality.

And isn't that what heaven is - perfect seeing? Isn't the concept of perfect union with God a face-to-face vision? This is why prophets in Scripture must physically turn away from God and never look directly upon him. This is why they're only ever permitted a glimpse at God's back. And this is why in Catholicism we say that to be in heaven is to experience the beatific vision - to be able to stand the "brightness" of looking upon God's face.

Sin isn't bad because it violates a divine and arbitrary rule book, and God isn't waiting to deal out punishments that correspond to what you've done. No, sin is the punishment! Sin carries within itself the life-draining effects we often think are reserved only for the end of time. God isn't waiting to hurt us for our sin. We're the ones hurting ourselves. This seems to be a much healthier view offering us both more freedom and a more loving image of God.

Related Posts:
Advent & Emmanuel: Seeing God was Here All Along

I'm in Love with Judas

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Black & White Photos of Faith

I'm a sucker for Buzzfeed articles. I don't get sucked into cat videos or Reddit, and I don't spend hours continuously checking Facebook or Twitter (outside of my marketing job). But I fall for the Buzzfeed link almost every time, mostly because they have the best headlines in the business.

A couple weeks ago I found myself clicking through to a seductive article with a title close to "These Photos Will Completely Change the Way You See the Past!" I mean, how could I resist?

But believe it or not, the post made good on that promise. They had taken black and white historical photos and artificially added in color. All of a sudden these images no longer seemed so distant. The man with the thick mustache and bowler looked like someone you might pass on the street. The scenes from 1940s life looked like a snapshot of your neighborhood. The retouching with color and thus lifelike aspects closed the distance between the past and present. I felt much more connected to the scenes in the photographs after that. They weren't so foreign or distant. They were right here next to my own experience.

In reflecting on the end of 2013, I think we all take black and white photographs, especially in the area of our faith. There is something very appealing and artistic about deleting color from an image. (Why else would it be so popular even to this day?) Having black and white photos allows contrast and thus a more certain level of understanding. It's easier to deal with images cast in only two colors. The complexity of full-color snapshots is much more difficult for us to process and the duo of black & white seems to help gloss over a lot of imperfections and blemishes. Everything looks better when cast into those two opposite extremes standing side by side in glaring distinction.

In Christianity we are especially susceptible to this. We like to think of our faith history in only two colors, black & white, right & wrong, those like us & those not. It's very convenient for the past to seem simpler, cleaner, or somehow purer - all effects of our black & white-washing. We love to think of golden eras like the early Church period, the high middle ages, the Reformation, or even 1950s America. "That was when men were men, Americans were great, Christians were real Christians and they knew it" and so on.

It's easy to think that the past was simpler with more contrast and stark outlines of morality, ("sure in my day we had problems, but we would never do X like you find now"). And it's easy to think that our current times, with so many complicated colors and hues, must indicate a terrible new height of debauchery, confusion, unfaithfulness, or trouble. You often hear people descrying that the world is now going to 'hell in a hand basket.' Just look at how many Christians reach for 'end times' prophecies and confidently point out their fulfillment today despite our very God decidedly telling us that not one of us would know the hour.

I'm a fan and student of history. And I used to feel some sense of loss about our contemporary culture of faith, as if we must have been screwing it up and the problems of our times were much too severe for reconciliation. But those thoughts are really just illusions (which first-hand accounts of peasants on the coast of France having literally everything they've known destroyed by Viking raiders will make abundantly clear). Think the Middle Ages were a wonderful era where everyone was united by Christianity? Try reading the histories, rife with conflict. Think 1950s America was a time when everyone acted knew right from wrong and acted with propriety? Now we have volumes of stories of what went on in secret, including divorce, forced abortions, and even child sexual abuse.

The good news? We don't have it worse than everyone else did; our problems are just different. Our faith isn't more watered down now then in previous ages. On the contrary, we have a much richer history to learn from than our forbears centuries before. The bad news? We are the ones often finding the complexity of our modern faith culture(s) too mentally difficult to deal with.

But rather than considering the past as a purified beacon or a simplified ideal we can realize, like I did with the color photographs, that there's more relatedness than perhaps we once thought. Our experiences of doubt and complexity are universal and that there's beauty in that shared experience as well. Others have weathered the same storm to their credit and now it's our turn.

The issues of our times may be different than before but that seems to be our task. We get to struggle with the life of faith and the really pressing issues of this age - war, poverty, corporate greed, the emphasis on sexual morality, homosexuality's place in society and the church, combating sexism, Christian disunity, and much more. We get to experience life in a million different colors. Christ didn't divide his reality into black & white, accepted or not, and in fact he condemned those of his time who did just that (See John 8:1-11). Such a task is clearly God's and not ours. We're called to simply be fully present in the here and now.

Our task of living in this full-color time may not be simple or neat but perhaps it holds the potential to be rich beyond anything we could have designed for ourselves, beyond anything we would have preferred. And I think it can give us beauty beyond anything we could have even known we'd always wanted.