Friday, August 15, 2014

The Church, Change, and Fear of Being Alone

Note:  The following was a talk I gave in front of my congregation last Sunday, to thank them and wish them goodbye before I move to seminary next week.

The morning of Pastor Mark's last service here stands out in my mind for two reasons. One:  the slightly-startled way he responded to the completely packed pews, by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. And two, the brief conversation that I had with him after the service was over. I thanked him for everything he had done for me in the previous few years, and explained how he and the congregation of Our Saviour had made me believe in organized religion again. He replied, “Well, that's the thing about God's Church, isn't it? It's made up of fallible people. It's easy to see that as the Church's weakness, but I try to think of that fact as its strength.” As human and imperfect as we all are, I've seen God's love, and God's work being done, through so many of you. I feel like Our Saviour is a family in a way that I have never experienced before from a spiritual community. 

Now, I know that I'm only going to grad school, and that my seminary is two and a half hours away rather than in Antarctica or something. I suspect I'll be back for Thanksgiving and Christmas and some summers. But the closer the time comes for me to move to Philadelphia, the more I've realized how much I'm going to miss coming here on Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, I've usually had to dodge out of here much earlier than I would like in order to go to work, which is also why I've tended to be an early service kind of guy. But worshiping and fellowshiping with you all has been one of my favorite parts of the week. You've made me feel cared for, appreciated, and loved. You've seen and fostered positive qualities in me that I hadn't recognized before. It's pleasant here. It's welcoming. It's spiritually uplifting and energizing, even on the mornings when I haven't had time for my morning coffee yet. And it's comfortable. In general, I know what to expect.

The truth is, I have no idea what my future in Philly has in store for me. I have extremely high hopes that I will find myself among great people at the seminary and in whatever congregations I serve and assist in worship. But those of you who know me well are probably aware that it can take some time for me to feel really comfortable and at ease in different situations. I'm sure that I will form some great relationships with time, but a small part of me is also afraid that I will end up being a bit lonely at first. 

That's why I'm so grateful for the experiences in my life that have taught me that I don't need to be afraid of being alone. The people who are dear to us don't need to be physically there in order for them to continue to be present in our lives. The love and confidence they have in us persist, day by day and change by change. I felt that love from friends and family every day while living alone abroad a few years ago. And in April of 2012, sitting alone in my Egyptian apartment, I accepted Christ with a strong sense that I was actually the farthest thing from being alone. Opening my eyes to the fact that God is always with us, even in our seemingly loneliest moments, has made all the difference in the world to me in times of solitude and change. 

So I ask you for your prayers and encouragement. I ask you to send the occasional positive vibe my way over the coming years. Please, wish me strength for getting through and learning from whatever challenges lie before me, for discerning what God would have me do and determination to act according to His will, and for an easy transition into new communities and new friendships. And in return, because I believe that whatever confidence you have in me comes with its own responsibilities on my end, I will try my best to take the lessons I have learned from you, about what it is to love God and neighbor, and apply them in whatever ways I can in a world sorely in need of God's love. 

A few weeks ago, I was driving to work after church. I was getting really excited about my upcoming move, about new classes and new opportunities, and was looking forward to the prospect of becoming a pastor years down the road. Then, my thoughts drifted to my mom, as they often do. The realization that she won't be there to see me move in, graduate, be ordained, or preach my first sermon hit me like a ton of bricks. After twenty minutes of DWC (Driving While Crying:  something I wouldn't recommend or condone for safety reasons, by the way), God led me to a second, far truer conclusion:  She will be there, in moments good and bad, through successes and apparent failures. So will God, and so will you, through your prayers and moral support. With a community like Our Saviour behind me, I don't need to be afraid of change while starting the next phase of my life as a disciple of Christ. Instead, I can study and learn and serve others in peace, secure in the fact that I'm not alone and that there are people out there who believe in me. And I can be equipped with the resolve to show the world what the Church of God can be like with people like you, guided by the Holy Spirit, as its strength. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Living with Hope in the Shadow of Easter: Faith, Fears, and a Way Forward

In the last post, I very briefly discussed some of the historical and scientific reasons I have for believing in God. My primary intention in doing so wasn't to put forth a full rational defense of Christianity. Of course, I would be thrilled if one or two people read that post and are inspired to do some deep thinking about the existence of the Christian God. Mainly, though, I wanted to use my writing to reflect on the role that those arguments played in my recent crisis of faith. At the height of that struggle a few months ago, I reached a point where I nearly convinced myself that I would never have enough certainty to legitimately believe in God without sacrificing my intellect and engaging in a large, psychologically-driven leap of faith. I felt that if I didn't have scientific or historical proof, then I would never be able to believe in God as I once had. 

Within the framework of those hyper-critical criteria that I was imposing upon myself, faith was something that took over when real evidence was insufficient. This definition of faith as “blind,” as shirking evidence or even being antithetical to it, continues to be the prevailing one in the minds of many close-minded Christians. I think it is also the definition that is most frequently assumed by opponents of religion. But the more I thought about it and exposed myself to various contemporary conceptions of faith, the more I came to find the following succinct definition to be what it can and perhaps should mean for believers: “Faith is trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true in the face of difficulties.” (Philosopher Tim McGrew, during a debate on my favorite podcast, Unbelievable

Implicit in McGrew's definition is the fact that there will always be a gap between strong probability and absolute intellectual certainty when it comes to belief in God. But we can have good reasons to trust that a loving god exists, and those reasons can hold their own against the difficulties posed by the impossibility of “proving” God. Faith does not need to be blind, and leaps of faith can be narrowed by exploring the claims of Christianity via scientific, historical, and philosophical inquiry. While I think caution must be exercised in evaluating experiential evidence, believers should also be open to the inner dimensions of spirituality, of the ways in which God may be working for good in their lives and those of others. 

Although faith is based on evidence, this does not mean that conversations can't be had over the nature and validity of the evidence that theists offer as justification for their faith. For some people, only things that can be hypothesized, tested, and proved have any business being a part of how we structure our lives. But life is about more than cold, hard science. It is about emotion as much as “objective” observation; about art and language and creative expression as much as scientific discoveries. Some of the most important aspects of life simply cannot be known with absolute certainty; nor do they need to be. (Note:  From my extremely limited knowledge of it, it seems to me that the pursuit of science itself belies its popular perception as "cold" and objective, and that it often shares elements of uncertainty and speculation, particularly in matters of quantum theory.) We don't need absolute proof to know that our families and close friends love us and want the best for us. We may choose to trust one person rather than another due to evidence, but what it really comes down to is having faith in those people in spite of the risks and possibilities of disappointment that relationships often entail. At its best, my faith in God is not a set of heady doctrines or rules or worship practices. It is a relationship with someone who, despite His non-corporeality, I think I have good reason to have belief and confidence in.

In spite of my new conception of faith, part of me continues to fear that a healthy skepticism and desire for evidence will grow to the point where I will need absolute proof to believe in anything. I'm afraid that I will continue to agonize over the existence of the Christian God. And perhaps most of all, I'm afraid that a life of faith and hope will be a baseless one. I'm afraid that I'm wrong, that I'm fooling myself, that there actually is no transcendent purpose or meaning, that we're here for this brief roller coaster of life and then simply gone. There is no loving god, no risen Christ, no rescue mission, no future redemption of our bodies and of the world.

These fears helped to make clear for me that doubt, like faith, can have a very strong emotional component. In my case, intense negative emotions were creeping below the surface of what I thought was an intellectual struggle, and were at times succeeding in convincing me that lack of evidence for the claims of Jesus' resurrection was the main reason for my doubts about God. I of course recognized the fact that my only crisis of doubt as an adult Christian took place in the months proceeding my mom's death. But as recently as my composition of the second post in this series, I didn't see how intertwined my search for certainty and evidence were with the devastation I felt from my personal loss.

Reading a book by Gary Habermas (strangely enough, the scholar on the resurrection mentioned in the previous post) about spiritual doubt was eye-opening for me because he and CS Lewis were able to express the connection so simply and practically. Habermas, quoting CS Lewis:  "Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable--when the whole world takes on that desolate look which really tells us much more about the state of our passions...than about reality." As I believe was true in my case, Lewis further points out the masking of emotional doubt under the guise of a rational exercise:  "But everyone must have experienced days in which we are caught up in a great wave of confidence or down into a trough of anxiety though there are no new grounds either for the one or the other. Of course, once the mood is on us, we find reasons soon enough. We say that we've been 'thinking it over': but it is pretty plain that the mood has created the reasons and not vice versa."

This is not to say that doubt can't be based primarily on a perceived lack of evidence, that there are no sound arguments against the existence of the Christian God, or that Christians should conceive of rational inquiry as inherently harmful to faith. But as the weeks passed and I continued to agonize and seek higher and higher degrees of certainty, I realized that this crisis of faith was fundamentally different than my usual excited resolve to study and think about reality and spiritual truth. This was panicked and hurried, a desperate search for unequivocal assurance that seemed to demand greater proof the more evidence for God that I encountered. And I knew I couldn't go on that way, that I had to choose between a life of hope and one of futility.

Over the last several weeks, I have come to propose a plan for myself that actively considers in equal measure proof and trust, “hard” evidence and experiential, rationality and emotion. It is a middle way between the extremes of evidentialism and fideism, between only allowing evidence as justification for belief on the one hand, and on the other maintaining that spiritual faith and revelation are independent of and superior to reason when it comes to discerning the truth. It is a way forward to someone for whom a strict dichotomy between head and heart has never been an option when making decisions about life. It is a way that rejects claims that the only valid epistemology (the study of how we know things) is one that complements a reductionist view of spirituality, morality, the search for meaning and purpose, and emotions like compassion and love, as products of indifferent processes of physics, biology, and chemistry. It is love for God and for others that I hope will drive me throughout my life, a love that will form the new center of my personal epistemology, a love supported by reason but that also allows me to believe without having seen God with my own two eyes.

In the coming months, I will attempt to embrace this love and this plan with all I have, abiding by this mantra that I formulated for myself:  "If you believe, then believe. Let it transform the way you think and feel. Live in God's hope, and allow His love to be your armor, your shield, and your sword." At the same time, I will continue to be receptive to arguments against God's existence, and to seek out the truth the best I can. But there will be no more wavering, no more agonizing and intense conflict. If after those months, I have no choice but to conclude that I had been engaging in cognitive dissonance, and that reality decisively points toward the lack of a supreme being, then I like to think I will have the courage to abandon my spiritual beliefs. 

But I pray this won't happen, nor do I think it will. For me, a life without God is one devoid of hope and meaning. It is one in which I can't imagine waking up in the morning with any sense of purpose, since anything I do will ultimately be for nothing. And a world without God means that there is no chance that I will ever see my mom again, that all I will ever have of her are fleeting memories, and that the same will eventually apply to more of my friends and family. (I'm aware of how grim a vision this is, but I think it's an accurate forecast of what a godless future would be like for me.) If I live as if God exists, then life will be frustrating and even tragic at times. Bad things will occasionally happen to me and to the people I care about. But meaning and love and hope that all good things can be restored will underlie it all. And I can believe that my mom is out there somewhere, resting with God, truly happy besides her concern for those of us whom she left behind. For myself, for my own happiness, I have no other option than to give a continued relationship with God a chance, to immerse myself in that hopeful perspective of life and share it with others. Is it possible that one day I will determine that hope and love are just a lie? Sure, it's possible. But I doubt it.

I wrote this series of posts on my faith crisis, as opposed to keeping my fears in and resigning myself to unbelief, because I feel deep down that God isn't going to let me out of His grasp. I wrote this to reassure myself that I can rationally believe in Him and the miracle of His Son's life, resurrection, and second coming. I wrote it to remind myself and others of the kind of life that I can have with Him, and of the experiences we've already shared together. Finally, I wrote it to let my readers know that they are not alone when the events in their lives seem to contradict the existence of a loving god. In spite of the difficulties and emotional turmoil, we can hold onto hope. We can hold onto the faith that changed our lives for the better, though we shouldn't be afraid of that faith maturing and developing by challenging it. While I may have periods of struggling with issues of science and philosophy and history, part of me knows that Christ will never leave me. I'm invested in him. I'm all in. And I think I have good reason to be.

Just as I was writing the last paragraph of this post,
a beautiful sun shower began. Of course, I had to take a shot of it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Living with Hope in the Shadow of Easter: A Rational Case for Continued Faith

I'm pretty surprised, to be honest. I always remembered you being smart back in school.” It wasn't quite the reaction I was expecting from a high school friend at our 10-year reunion, upon hearing about my decision to go to seminary and become a pastor. But I wasn't shocked by it, either. In a lot of people's minds, and especially among my fellow generation of New Jerseyians, faith in religion (especially of the organized varieties) is something that you grow out of when you start thinking for yourself in college. Christianity seems ridiculous, irrational, and immoral to many people nowadays. It's considered a remnant of pre-modern myths and the gullible ancients who believed in them. Many are convinced that belief in a creator god will fade away as we learn more and more about science and the way the world really works, apart from any involvement of the supernatural. Being “smart” means realizing that we don't need god anymore and letting go of all those old, constrictive superstitions.

I tend not to get rattled or offended by comments like this, nor do I think my friend intended it to be combative or condescending. I remember civilly continuing the discussion for a few minutes, trying to explain why I believe in God while struggling to be heard over the loud music and voices around us. As you could imagine, he remained skeptical, not only about the existence of the Christian God, but also about my reasons for choosing to set off on a career/life path in the Church. 

I occasionally wonder what conversations at my next reunion will be like. In addition to reminisces about high school, news about spouses and kids, comments on the food, or complaints about the poor beer selection at the open bar, what will I have to say about my spirituality? If friends ask about how my career plans turned out, will I tell them that I eventually lost faith and changed my mind about God? Will I tell them that the main reason for doing so were the outrageous claims of the New Testament about resurrection, claims that went against science and common sense? Will I confide with my closer friends that I look back at my years of faith in a supreme being with something verging on regret and pity for the delusional person I was? Or will I tell them that I fought through this period of doubt and came out on the other side with an even stronger faith and sense of purpose than before? Will I tell them that I don't feel like I need to make a choice between belief in the Christian God and my intellectual integrity? Even on the days when my doubts are most overwhelming, I continue to feel deep down that there are very good reasons for me to have faith, and to live in hope in the shadow of Easter.

After reading and thinking about dozens of arguments for and against the existence of a creator god and the Resurrection of Jesus, the intellectual plausibility of the Christian God continues to be one of those reasons. For years, the main weight of my evidential belief in God has rested on the historical arguments for the extraordinary life and Resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to ancient history, we can never have absolute certainty that an event took place. What we can do, however, is look at the facts and try to identify the most probable explanation for them. Across the board and irrespective of their religious beliefs, scholars have acknowledged three facts relevant to this topic as more or less indisputable:  that Jesus was crucified and died; that his disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; and that Saul of Tarsus underwent a drastic transformation, from Church persecutor to fervent propagator of the faith. One could also add two facts possessing slightly less scholarly consensus (but which, in my mind, are equally well-established):  that James, the half-brother of Jesus, had a similar transformation to Paul's; and that Jesus' tomb was found empty by some of his female followers on that first Easter morning. 

Gary Habermas, whose academic career has focussed on the historicity of the Resurrection, asserts that a careful consideration of these rarely-disputed facts alone can establish the Resurrection as a historically probable event. His “minimal facts approach,” as he calls it, has played an integral role in my search to determine whether it is at all reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised and physically appeared to his disciples. (Although I've highlighted Habermas, the writings of my favorite scholar, NT Wright, on the subject have been crucial for me as well.) In spite of the strong case for it, of course, alternative explanations continue to abound:  claims of hallucinations and visions (perceived by both individuals and groups), lying disciples, the lies or delusions of Paul (despite the fact that he had everything to lose by becoming a leader of the Christian movement), the idea that a severely-beaten Jesus narrowly escaped death and somehow convinced his disciples that he had risen in glory, etc. Hours of ruminating on these and other explanations have led me to conclude that they lack logical and historical credibility. Only by importing assumptions about the non-existence of God or the impossibility of miracles can one refute that the Resurrection is the best explanation. 

Thus, non-Christian historians and philosophers must simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I have no idea what happened, but anything is more plausible than believing that God exists and raised someone from the dead. Besides, I don't think historical method can even inquire into a so-called miracle.” It strikes me, though, that the Christian faith has the potential to be supported or verified by historical method more than any other religious system. After all, Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection appearances were publicly observable events. Regardless of one's opinions on miracles, the risen Christ was either physically seen by his disciples, his enemy Paul, and his skeptic brother, or he wasn't. I believe that the New Testament writings possess enough value as historical documents to establish that he probably was. That is, as long as you don't a priori assert the impossibility of a loving god who wished to usher in His renewed creation through the vindication of His Son.

Several weeks ago, I began to research the scientific and philosophical arguments for the existence of such a creator god as a supplement to my historical inquiries. I did so out of a desperate hope that it would bolster my wavering faith. I thought that if I only had enough rational reasons for belief, and if I only could be absolutely certain about it being the truth, perhaps my doubts could be permanently dispelled. Looking into subjects that I never would have researched otherwise, such as cosmogony, intelligent design, quantum theory, the human mind, and teleology, my faith has been enriched by the knowledge that trends in contemporary science can be decently argued to complement the concept of a creator god and an ultimate consciousness. At the very least, science does not preclude the possibility of a supreme being. 

But in all the hours of reading about these topics and solidifying the historical case for the Resurrection, and amidst the emotional turmoil that accompanied much of that time, I never reached my initial goal of attaining to an absolute intellectual certainty in the truth of Christianity. At a certain point, I had to admit that there will always be a chance that I am fooling myself by believing in God. My fervent attempts to place myself in a world that holds purpose and transcendent beauty could be a sort of grasping at existential straws, seeking out patterns and meaning where there are none to be found. Luckily, my grapplings with spirituality didn't end at those conclusions. Instead, along with the realization that rational certainty will probably always allude me came fresh perspectives on faith, doubt, and epistemology (the study of how we know things). Perhaps more importantly, I began to develop strategies and chart a path forward that I believe will allow me to live a life of hope rather than despair. 

(Note:  The issues associated with the Resurrection deserve a lot more attention, but this blog article would have gone on much longer if I had allowed myself to flesh out all the facts. For more arguments for the Resurrection and refutations of counter-explanations, I would highly recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, The Resurrection of the Son of God by NT Wright, and a compact book by William Lane Craig called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? For some of the scientific and philosophical topics, check out Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, The Big Questions in Science and Religion by Keith Ward, and Science and Religion: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. All of these books are written by Christians. It is, of course, a good idea to read arguments from both sides, but these books are a good start for those who are curious. There are also dozens of public debates by these and other thinkers that can be accessed on YouTube.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Holidays and Freedom

This 4th of July, millions of Americans will celebrate our independence from Britain by relaxing and having barbecues and fireworks. For me and my coworkers at Ringwood State Park, though, it's the busiest day of the year. Hundreds of people come to the park to swim, grill, and attend our annual re-enacted reading of the Declaration of Independence. We try to make it as interactive as we can, encouraging the crowds to boo when the King of England, colonial taxes, or other abuses are mentioned, and to cheer during the proclamations that the colonists were no longer willing to put up with English rule. After the reading, there are games and activities for kids and adults, along with the obligatory free watermelon. The whole event tends to rouse a lot of patriotic feelings in our visitors. 

National holidays, whether in the US or around the world, are more important than we often consider them to be. As much as I love a good cheeseburger and hotdog on the grill, holidays aren't just ideal opportunities to gorge on food. They're actually vital expressions of a country's identity. Holidays act as a main way for us to tell stories about ourselves as a people, about our history and values and the things that matter to us. The story of the 4th of July is probably more powerful than any other American holiday. It's a story of freedom, of deliverance from tyranny, of successfully standing up to fight for our rights. Celebrating these holidays, and especially re-enacting Revolutionary War battles and reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to a crowd, doesn't only tell us about our country's past. Holidays make a statement about who we are today, and who we would like to be in the future. 

I believe this principle holds true even for some ancient peoples, and particularly for 1st century Jews living in Palestine. They longed for freedom. For centuries, they had been ruled by various pagan powers, culminating in the despotic Romans and a “king,” Herod, who only served his own interests and those of his Roman overlords. They weren't even in control over their Temple, the center of their faith, which had recently been adorned with statues of eagles in spite of the strict biblical commandments against graven images. At face value, there seemed to be little chance for positive change. 

And yet, each year they continued to gather in Jerusalem for the major holidays. By celebrating holidays like Passover, Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost), they recounted how God had saved them from slavery in Egypt, steadfastly guided their rebellious ancestors in the Wilderness, and given Moses the Law on Mount Sinai. They made those events alive again through the retelling of them, making certain that their children knew about the redeeming ways that God had acted within the history of the Jewish people. This was done not only for the sake of remembering these events and being grateful to God, but in order to renew their hope that God, perhaps through His chosen messiah, would rescue them once more. In addition to these holidays, Jews continued to keep the weekly sabbath and attempted to observe Jubilee years. Jubilees were designated once every fifty years, during which slaves and prisoners should be freed and debts be forgiven. It was, according to the book of Leviticus, a time when liberty should be proclaimed throughout all the land and to all its inhabitants. (25:10) By celebrating and observing these holy days, 1st century Jews were marking time as a people and praying for the time that God would decisively step into history, free them from the pagan Roman army, restore Jewish sovereignty over the promised land, and give them and the land the rest from warfare and oppression that they yearned for. 

When God finally did step into history, He did so not at the head of a powerful army ready to drive out the Romans, but as a Jewish man humbly riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. During the last week of his earthly life, Jesus showed another way to remember and re-enact the Passover. He revealed that the Jews indeed needed to be saved, but not from whatever pagan empire was ruling Palestine at the time. Rather, he taught that the true enemies of God's people were the forces of evil and death that lurked behind the cruelty of the Romans, and that also ruled within the hearts of men. 

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus embodied the true fulfillment of all those Jewish holidays. He provided a New Exodus from those in slavery to the “Egypt” of sin and death. He declared a grand Jubilee through his ministry, proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind. (Luke 4:18, based on Isaiah 61:1-2) He ensured that God's people would be given the Holy Spirit as a guide for the Wilderness of our lives, and in order to enable us to obey his Law of love. The story that the Bible tells about Jesus is every bit about freedom and independence as the 4th of July is. So, as you're barbecuing and enjoying the fireworks, try to think about what God may be calling you to ask for freedom from. Whether it's anger or jealousy, a bad temper or arrogance, worry or fear, have faith that God has provided us with a way to be independent from all of these things and more by sending His Son to Earth for our sake. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Living With Doubt in the Shadow of Easter

The revolutionary nature and impact of Jesus' Resurrection, as well as the event that it  anticipates i.e. the Second Coming, were the primary reasons that I became a Christian. The truth of Christianity rises or falls on these events, as does my faith. So, what if the Resurrection never happened? What if God (if He exists at all) is never going to step in and complete His victory over sin and death? What if He will never transform our bodies or the cosmos? Is it possible (or probable) that I'm just fooling myself, and basing my life on a lie or a figment of the imaginations of Jesus' grieving disciples? 

For the last few months, I've spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about these questions. This shouldn't come as a surprise to any of you who know me well. When it comes to deciding what I believe about the existence and nature of God, I've never really taken the easy way out. Over the years, I've rejected complacency and refused to simply accept wholesale what I've been told by others. My main goal has been to search for the truth about reality rather than for comfort. No matter how emotionally reassuring or attractive an idea might be, I don't want to believe in something that's not true. If I'm to be honest with myself, I would need to apply this criterium even to my Resurrection-centered Christian faith.

Perhaps “re-apply” would be a more appropriate word here. I first became convinced of the veracity of the main doctrines of Christianity, particularly the Resurrection, more than two years ago. I did so after spending countless hours researching and evaluating the claims of the New Testament writers. Eventually, I found the arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection offered by scholar NT Wright surprisingly compelling. I was further persuaded by the way in which he wove the event and the resulting formation of the Church into the context of first century Palestine and Judaism. As incredible as it sounded to me at first, Jesus coming back from the dead and appearing to his disciples really seemed to be the best explanation for the data that we possess. 

This grand event and the vision of god that it implies didn't just make intellectual sense to me. The risen Christ grasped my heart as much as my head. I quickly came to love him, and sensed that I was a part of the amazing story to which the Resurrection provided a climax. I had deeply profound experiences of God in my life and believed that I could sense His presence in other people. In addition to the historicity of the Resurrection, then, there was also an element of “experiential evidence” involved in my decision to become and remain a Christian. 

One of the main effects of the Resurrection, the promise that Jesus will come back to Earth and fully usher in God's New Creation, is where Christian theology gets both incredibly compelling and difficult to swallow. According to the Bible, upon Jesus' return our bodies will be rebuilt and restored to us much like his own i.e. immortal and indestructible. The apostle Paul also seems to teach that the planet itself will become imperishable at that point. This would mean that a central fact of the physical world, that all life ends with death, will no longer apply. Many of the natural laws of biology, chemistry, and physics will be annulled when the Holy Spirit implements God's incorruptible version of reality. The practical issues here are myriad:  How will the transformation of our bodies come about, especially in the case of cremated remains? Will our cells no longer grow and die and be replaced? What will we eat, if anything? Will there be animals and plants in this New Creation, and if so, will they be immortal as well? How will the planet go on to exist for all eternity? Will suns continue to emit energy forever? (I'm sure that my scientifically-inclined friends could come up with even more questions along the same lines.) 

If God is the Creator, then He is in control of the way the universe operates. Just because the laws of science seem set in stone to us doesn't mean this must always be the case. If He wanted to, He could implement these changes to reality in accordance with His will. He could resolve the tensions latent in the questions above in ways that are inconceivable to our puny brains. But for me, a conviction that there is a supreme being that can and will do this has to be premised on the historicity of Jesus' rising from the dead, the miracle that guarantees that Jesus will have a Second Coming at all. So, is the evidence for the Resurrection and the God of Christianity really strong enough to hold a conviction that He will intervene in the state of the universe in such a drastic manner? I would have given a solid affirmative answer to this question for much of my time as a Christian. However, for several months I've been re-evaluating the likelihood of the Resurrection and the consequent Second Coming compared to the chances that life in this world will simply go on as it always has (until it simply ends altogether). 

There are several lines of thought running around in my head that have led me to this point. For one, when it comes to any sort of “experiential evidence” for the existence of this god, I've had a growing, nagging feeling that the term itself is a contradiction. In other words, because of the subjective nature of “what we feel to be true,” it shouldn't even count when weighing evidence. Paul claims that the presence of the Holy Spirit transforming Christians' lives is a down payment and a guarantee of the final Resurrection, when God's Spirit will suffuse all things. For now, though, it's almost impossible for us to see its effects in any concrete way. Perhaps we can look at Christians (including ourselves) and have a sense that they are alive in Christ rather than dead in their sins. But how is this anything other than subjective observation? 

After all, people hold firm convictions and feel transformed by gods and figures of other belief systems. Telling a Muslim about your loving relationship with Jesus your Savior, for example, won't do much good in convincing him that his admiration for his beloved Prophet Muhammad is misplaced. Explaining that you can feel the Holy Spirit of the triune god in your life will do little to invalidate his own experiences with Allah. We have to at least allow for the possibility that some of our perceived interactions with a supreme being may have psychological and emotional causes rather than divine. Sometimes, my mind takes this idea to its limit, asserting that belief in the supernatural and transcendent stem from a subconscious desire to form patterns of meaning and significance where there simply are none. It asserts that the phenomenon of faith is mankind's futile attempt to reject what is everywhere apparent:  that all living things die, that nothing is eternal, that there is no grand scheme or purpose behind existence. 

Fears that I'm fooling myself by even trying to hold onto faith, and that the only honest thing I can do as a rational person is accept these facts and live out my remaining years without expectations of an afterlife, have settled their way into my heart in the aftermath of my mother's recent death (a topic that is too painful and fresh to write about more extensively at this time). However, my struggle with faith isn't a matter of me being angry at God for causing or allowing this to happen. I realize that people sometimes just get sick and die. But in my sadness, all I seem able to see most of the time is the inevitability that everything will end. It's been very difficult to hold onto hope, and to have that hope allied with whatever credible arguments there are for faith in the risen Christ. 

On one end of a scale measuring evidence for and against the Christian God, then, I seem to have a wealth of empirical and scientific data that give me no reason to think that the universe will work in any other way than it does now. And on the other, I have historical and philosophical arguments that I'm struggling to even lift onto the scale because of my current state of mental and emotional weakness. All of those future changes to the laws of nature depend entirely on whether a man rose from the dead 2,000 years ago as depicted in the Bible. That's a lot riding on one unrepeatable, untestable event in ancient history. 

I'm afraid that my faith will buckle under the weight of these considerations and eventually crumble. I'm afraid that one day I will be forced by rationality to see God's plan for creation only as a pleasant story, something fun to read about and fascinating to study, but ultimately a fairy tale for wishful dreamers. These fears stem from the very things that brought me to belief in the first place. The concepts of Resurrection, Second Coming, and God's New Creation have become a two-edged sword threatening to unravel the faith they once built up. To echo the comments of Paul when addressing the idea that Jesus did not rise from the dead, “...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinth. 15:17-19) Are Christians, including myself, to be pitied? Should we accept that we have been engaging in an act of cognitive dissonance and begin the difficult process of shedding off our delusions and committing ourselves to eating, drinking, and being merry? I'm not prepared to say that we should. In spite of all my intellectual and emotional struggles in believing in the risen Christ, I think there is still some hope to be found in the shadow of Easter.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Living With Faith in the Shadow of Easter

It was like a tidal wave, smashing down on all Creation. Instead of bringing death and destruction, though, the Bible claims that Jesus' Resurrection transformed and gave new life to everything it touched. For now, the victory achieved by Jesus through his crucifixion and Resurrection can be difficult for us to perceive, but upon his return, the ushering in of God's New Creation that was inaugurated by those events will be complete. 

Much of what we know about the world will change as a result, specifically its transitory nature. We will have bodies restored to us, both similar and dissimilar to the ones we have now, with the key difference that they will be like Jesus', impervious to sickness, injury, and death. To complement our new corporeality there will be a renewed Earth, no longer under its own slavery to decay. Although not addressed by the New Testament writers explicitly, it can safely be assumed that the effects of the Second Coming will even extend beyond our planet to the universe as a whole. All of this will be for God's glory, and to allow us to finally be faithful and loving stewards over His work. 

This vision of the future, comprised of life in a New Heavens and New Earth rather than a non-material eternity, can and should radically change our perception of God, as well as what it means to be His followers. I believe in a god who affirmed the goodness of His Creation rather than gave up on it; a god whose purpose in sending Jesus wasn't to secure our souls spots in Heaven to play harps on clouds, but to rescue and reclaim the physical world (including us) from eventual destruction; and who, instead of sending us into the world solely to do door-to-door evangelizing and save people from a Hell of eternal torment, desires that we declare Jesus' Kingship of Earth as much as of Heaven. He wants us to be agents of His New Creation, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to attempt to bring bits of His glorious future into the present with the use of the gifts and resources He has given us. 

That god sent the tidal wave of the Resurrection to come crashing down over me two years ago. And it was the grandness of His aims and actions that He displayed on the first Easter morning that brought me to Him. Or, perhaps just as accurate a statement, it was several articles and sermons by Anglican scholar NT Wright that opened my eyes to these incredibly rich aspects of Christian theology. I quickly came to see them, not as heady theories or doctrines detached from everyday life, but as truths revealing a Lord that I could fully have faith in, devote my life to, and love. I felt myself being grasped and pulled in by the story the Bible was telling me; I believed deep down that I was living inside that story and that I could contribute to it in my own tiny way. 

For probably the first time, I was at peace not only with God, but with my perception of Him. Since Easter of 2012, my Resurrection-centered faith has deepened my relationship with the Lord, given me new motivations to go out into the world to do His work, and fostered a growing fascination for the Bible as an object of study. For me, everything hinges on Easter. 

Considering this fact, the question of whether the Resurrection actually happened naturally arises in my mind fairly frequently. It's a concern that is usually quickly assuaged by reminding myself of the theological and historical arguments that led me to be convinced of it in the first place, as well as by prayer and the emotional intuition that tells me it's true. But for the last several months, I've been afraid that the very teachings that brought me to belief, i.e. those regarding the enormity of what God has done and will do in and through Jesus, may ultimately lead me to a state of doubt. The form that these doubts have taken, as well as what I plan on doing about them, will be the topics of my next few posts. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Against Heaven and Against God: Romans 8 and the Persistence of Love

I'm my own worst enemy.” We've all heard people use this expression. Perhaps we've even said it ourselves. (I know I have, at least.) We all act against our own best interests sometimes, doing things that we know will be harmful to our mental or physical well-being or that of others. How often do we seek happiness and contentment in things that we know from experience will never really satisfy us? How many of our interpersonal relationships have we attempted to sabotage out of fear and insecurity, sometimes subconsciously? Even the “best” of us occasionally take advantage of the people who love us dearly. We turn away from God, or become angry with Him when our lives don't go the way we planned. On top of all this, we often feel the need to punish ourselves for the mistakes we've made. We put up a barrier against self-forgiveness and mercy, a wall so strong and high that it feels like God couldn't even break through it. 

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul expresses his frustration at his moral failings very simply:  “For the good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I do not want to do, that I practice.” (7:19) This is not to say that we are incapable of doing anything good in the course of our lives. Nonetheless, I can sympathize with Paul here. Our flaws and weaknesses can sometimes make us feel like we are beyond the reach of God. It seems like a desperate, unsolvable situation. 

The Angel Michael and a demon
But what is impossible with man is possible with God. In the very next chapter of Romans, Paul outlines the glory we have with Christ as children of God and the awesome power of the Spirit that dwells within us. “If God is for us,” he asks, “who can be against us?” (8:31) His answer:  no one, since Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, intercedes for us with God the Father. And what about God's love? Surely, he can't love us all the time. How can he love us when we've made so many stupid mistakes, when we know we've failed Him and hurt other people? Paul's response is what makes the Gospel so incredibly beautiful. Nothing at all in His creation, Paul concludes, “can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39) Not tribulation, distress, poverty, war. Not death, angels, things in the present, things to come. And not our mistakes, our regrets, our cruelty and resentment. As many times as we fall to a point where we think we'll never be able to be reconciled to God, He will be running to embrace us with His mercy. 

This is a love that makes no human sense. We can hardly forgive ourselves for the things we've done. Why would God, the ultimate source of Good, reach out to us? What did we do to deserve someone like Him in our lives? Nothing, really, and that's part of the point. He loves us in spite of our faults and sins, sending us His Son so that we can live with Him forever. God wants us to follow the example of Jesus' compassionate and self-sacrificial life, to be conformed to the image of His Son rather than give in to our desires and weaknesses. But when we inevitably stumble and fall, we should know somewhere deep inside us that God's forgiveness is always there for us. Our Father's back is never turned away from us in shame. He's waiting for us to shed our regret and self-directed anger, poised to throw his arms around us and welcome us back into the love that we were made for. The walls that we construct to keep out His mercy don't stand a chance against Him.