Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Premature Judgment – Part 1

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. – Luke 5:31

If you could poke around in the recesses of my brain – past the favorite lines from Fawlty Towers, the pipe dream of driving a ’63 Riviera, the forgotten errands from three months ago – you would find a Christian who has had a bellyful of the culture wars. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the substance of what my fellow believers are advocating. I just think they’re often waging the wrong battle – to redeem a world system that’s beyond redemption, while driving away very redeemable individuals.

The greatest beneficiaries of this tend to be the politicians who enlist in the army at each election season, then desert as soon as the votes are counted. The creeping redefinition of morality in family life, education, media and entertainment continues as before – as if any politician could arrest all of these trends.

Perhaps it’s just human nature that feeds the culture warrior mindset. It’s easy to throw stones from a distance. What’s hard is reaching your hands into the midst of the broken glass and trying to mend it. Still, I sense that I’m not alone in my weariness of the social standoff. I listen to what friends are saying, to what’s coming from some pulpits of late, to the lyrics Christian artists are writing, and I pick up a new and inviting spirit.

All of this has the feel of a pendulum starting to swing, so there’s a good chance some will ride it too far. The trick is to hop off at the right spot. No one should be invited to faith by the deception that they can enter a relationship with Christ and not be changed.

But doctors don’t stand in the streets and berate people for getting sick, and thus hope to cure them all. Your doctor works on your malady in close quarters. Jesus worked with sinners one on one – and still does. And so we ought to draw nearer to those we’ve been told to see as a threat.

Of this I’m pretty sure: unless you count the remnant of Israel sealed in the Book of Revelation, no nation or society is destined for collective redemption. There will, however, be millions of individual souls with a new citizenship at the end of time. So I am content to see the individual redeemed, and then let a conscience renewed by God be brought into agreement with Him on individual questions of right and wrong. Instead, Christianity often gets wrapped in a mantle of judgment, condemnation, fear and even hatred. We get ahead of God in judgment, trying to do His job on our schedule.

So what place does judgment have in a Christian’s life? We ought not be judging people, but we ought to be judging sin – that is, recognizing it and calling it for what it is. Otherwise, how would we keep our own lives clean, or know when to raise our voices against injustice?

Injustice. If there are any fronts to be contested in the culture wars, any issues worth a fight where the sacred meets the secular, they fall under this category. More on that in Part 2, when I stick both hands into a hornets’ nest built with shards of glass.


Where There’s a Will

“Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”—C.S. Lewis

Unquestioning belief is one crisis away from unbelief. It’s easy to leave your faith unexamined in tranquil times, but there’s a price to pay when things get bumpy. The truth will still be the truth, but life’s biggest struggles can trigger a crisis of belief if you’ve never wrestled honestly with why you believe.

The past couple of years have compelled me to shine the light of reason on my faith as never before. I’ve confronted hard questions that I had preferred to ignore. I believe many Christians dodge those questions, perhaps fearing as I did that they’ll find no reasonable answers, and their faith will be threatened.

No question is more basic than this one: Without conclusive, fit-for-a-jury evidence, how can I believe there is any god, capital G or small? I have plenty of circumstantial evidence, more than enough to sustain my own faith, but I can’t present an airtight, forensic case to persuade a skeptic.

Instead, I tested the no-God concept. This was not an attack on science; indeed, some believers would do well to listen more to scientists and attack them less. There is a way through the seeming contradictions between science and scripture, but that’s a topic for another day. Now to the issue at hand.

Unbelief ironically trades the perceived shackles of religion for a rigidity that would do a Pharisee proud. This assertion may provoke a shrug—”Well, if that’s the way it is, so be it.” But accepting it means buying into a package of implications that are counterintuitive to say the least. Here’s how:

Suppose there is no higher intelligence, no transcendent will over all that exists, just the forces of physics—laws and constants blindly but consistently dictating every occurrence, from the subatomic level to the cosmic. There is no such thing as a soul. Where does that leave us? Logically to me, we are part of an inconceivably intricate web of cause and effect, spanning time and space back to the Big Bang. And because there are only law-bound physical forces, the universe could be in no other state than it is now. Even our thoughts reflect the activity of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles inside our brains, inevitable effects springing from blind natural sequences. Everything, from yesterday’s weather, to the winner of the next election, to our cat’s thyroid condition, was baked in at the inception of the universe.

What does that mean for free will? It’s an illusion; we have none. To assert that the physical universe is all, yet still claim free will, what would you have to believe? That some assemblage of matter hived itself off from the universal web of causation, and learned to express the marriage of intelligence and intent that constitutes free will. This structure still obeyed the laws of physics that formed it, but it became an original point of causation in the universe, distinct from the first cause—the Big Bang. In a universe that harbored no will or intent at its formation, free will came into being.

It gets better. The process that produced free will replicated itself—with spectacular success. It’s done it billions of times. Every human that is born at some point makes that same leap from merely a complex, organic system to a vessel carrying a will inside it.

I believe none of this. I do not believe in determinism, the branch of philosophy that excludes free will. The existence of our will may be dauntingly mysterious, but it is self-evident. Nor do I believe that our will is the product of some purely physical process.

I do believe that our universe is orderly in the sense that for the most part, the physical laws operate predictably and consistently—as they were created to do. I believe that we can leverage the physical laws and properties of matter with our will to accomplish tasks and to create, but our will cannot bend those laws. It’s not our place.

The intelligent design view of creation often draws on the watchmaker illustration. If you find a watch on the ground, you reasonably conclude that this intricate, elegant machine had a maker. This evokes the wonderful, organic machines that abound in nature, leading to the conclusion that there must be a Creator. It’s a compelling analogy, and on some level it illuminates a truth that I believe.  By itself, however, it’s not an invincible argument in the face of modern science.

But if we dwell on the analogy, we miss a deeper question right there in the literal scenario. That watch on your wrist, the real one—how did its maker come by the will to make it?

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