Friday, November 21, 2014

Billy, my Krishna Devotee Doppelgänger

Earlier this semester, I took a class trip to the Shri Radha Krishna Temple down the street from the seminary. Although it was my first visit to a Krishna consciousness worship space, it was my second to a Hindu temple. During much of the worship, I kept thinking about how different it was from my first trip, which was organized by the non-denominational “born-again” church where I had been attending Bible studies. Before we left, the leader gathered the group and told us two things. First, he warned us not to eat anything the Hindus offered us because it had all been offered to the “demon idols” they worshipped. Second, he read Romans 1:20-25 (on worshipping the created rather than the Creator) and asked that we pray for these Hindus to stop rebelling against God and repent. 

As facilitators, my class's professor and the leader of my first visit couldn’t have been further apart. When we arrived, some of the worship had already begun, and while I spent several minutes in a state of discomfort, I noticed my professor putting his hands near the flames that were being brought around the space and wiping his face with his hands. Later, I saw a few of my classmates bowing to the ground when the Krishna devotees did. As accepting of other religions as I am, and as much as I knew that many Hindus claim to worship the Supreme Being rather than the statues or individual deities themselves, I said to myself:  “This is still idolatry, isn’t it? How are my professors and some of the other students doing this?” With time, I became more comfortable and joined in with the singing and clapping. I came to really enjoy the simplicity of the songs, as well as the fact that the walls of the worship space served as a sort of replacement for our Lutheran hymnals. 

For me, the real value of the visit began after the worship and Q&A. While outside waiting on line for food (which ended up being some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had), I started talking to a young devotee named Billy. What began as interested small talk became a long, intense conversation. Early on, he told me that he lived and studied Hinduism on the temple property, which immediately brought out parallels between us in our minds. At one point, he joked that he was a “Krishna devotee seminarian.” When the conversation drifted to our faith stories, we both found them remarkably similar, even in some of the details. The only significant different between us was where our fervent quests for spiritual truth had landed us. After about two hours, we exchanged phone numbers, recommended some books to each other, and promised to get together when he returns from a stay in Canada in February. The experience is one of my favorite that I’ve had at seminary.

As I somewhat reluctantly walked away from the Krishna temple, I couldn’t help but think, “If things in my life had been a little different, if I had been interested in Hinduism in college rather than Islam, that could have been me.” (Although, to be honest, I would have had a real struggle with the no meat/no alcohol/no coffee aspect of the devotees’ faith.) If I had converted to Krishna consciousness instead of Christianity, would that have made me an idolator? Is my friend, Billy, an idolator? Do the love for the Supreme Being and passion for helping other people that he expressed during our conversation bear any resemblance to the idolatry railed against so often in the Bible? Has Billy’s sincere search for truth left him under the wrath of God, and if so, will that always be the case? 

We Christians might answer these questions differently from each other. For example, many of the participants of my previous trip to a Hindu temple would say “yes” to each of them, pointing to many books in the Old Testament and to Romans to show that people like Billy are in willful opposition to God’s will. Personally, I would lean toward answering them in the negative, not because I don’t believe that God was specially revealed in Jesus Christ, but because I do believe that. In Jesus, I see a god of unimaginable mercy. I see the One who knows the hearts and intentions of all people. I see a deity who, I believe, would not allow physical death to be the cut-off point to having a relationship with such a gracious God. 


In his love, Jesus Christ took hold of me two and a half years ago. I wish everyone would know that love. But my years of searching for spiritual truth that led me to accept Christ were propelled by a powerful sense that there is an underlying meaning to our lives, and that the world consists of more than we can see and hear. I can’t help but see in Billy that same sincere yearning for relationship with the Divine Reality. I can’t help but recognize the worshippers at the Krishna temple as my brothers and sisters in desiring a connection with the force that underlies all things. May God lead them wherever God wills.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is Allah the God of Christians and Jews, and Does it Really Matter?

In the summer of 2010, I revisited my favorite mosque in the world:  the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I spent about half an hour walking around and around the exterior and interior of the mosque, in awe of its beautiful tile work, glittering dome, and unusual shape. (It is, I think, the only octagonal mosque in the world.) While inside, I tried to get as much of a peek as I could of the large rock at its center for which it is named. The “Foundation Stone,” as it is called, may be the most important rock in the history of the Abrahamic faiths. According to Jewish tradition, it is the first rock ever created by God, the site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael in the Islamic tradition), and the rock upon which Jacob had his famous dream about the ladder. It is believed to have been the site of the Holy of Holies, upon which the Ark of the Covenant was placed. And finally, Muslims believe the rock was one of the main destinations on their Prophet’s “Night Journey.” 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay inside for long. It was Ramadan, and since the number of Muslims praying on the Temple Mount was typically so large that month, the religious authorities had assigned the Dome of the Rock for prayer for women, and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque for men. I wasn’t disturbing any ritual prayers, but my presence there amongst women and children raised a red flag. A Palestinian Muslim escorted me outside and began grilling me a bit, asking how I had gotten onto the Temple Mount in the first place. (Only Muslims are permitted access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan.) His response when I explained that I was Muslim was one that I had come across a lot in the previous months:  surprise and joy. He asked me which Prophet I followed. “Muhammad,” I responded, to which he added, “And all the others before him, right? Adam, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, and all the others?” That day was a day of gratitude for me, gratitude that Allah had led me to officially become a Muslim in April of that year, and gratitude for leading me to a faith that was built on the foundation of the prophets and God of Judaism and Christianity. 

Those months in 2010 were what I refer to as my “honeymoon period” with Islam, when I saw Allah’s last revelation to humankind (the Qur’an) as a necessary addition and correction to the Christian beliefs that I had been brought up with. That was before all of my problems with the theology and morality of the Qur’an, my struggles to live as a practicing Muslim, and my inability to truly love the messenger and god of Islam as depicted in the Qur’an and the Hadith. These doubts and struggles led me to a reconsideration of both Islam and Christianity, hours of talking to friends and praying for guidance, and research into Jesus and his context that climaxed in my acceptance of Christ in April of 2012. 

Since then, the question of whether I had been worshiping the same god while as a Muslim as I do now has occasionally crossed my mind. If worship is dependent on or made effectual by how we clothe God, or in which clothing of God we accept as true, then I would have to reply, “I don’t know.” As a Christian, I reject the claim that Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. I can’t ignore the differences between the god clothed by Muhammad in the Qur’an, and the god I see revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neither, however, will I dismiss the similarities in these faith traditions’ teachings, bemoan the years I spent as a Muslim, or characterize Muslims as devotees of a god of hatred and violence. I find the question of what/whom Muslims and Christians worship as immaterial or even impossible for us to answer, partly because it seems to force us to either erase or maximize differences between the theologies, the “God-talks,” of these religions in a way that does disservice to the lived-out faiths of both groups. 

For scholar Miroslav Volf, though, the question of common worship is an essential one for the future of relations between Muslims and Christians, in the US and around the world: “Whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is also the driving question for the relation between these two religions globally. Does the one God of Islam stand in contrast to the three-personal God of Christianity? Does the Muslim God issue fierce, unbending laws and demand submission, whereas the Christian God stands for love, equal dignity and the right of every individual to be different? Answer these questions the one way, and you have a justification for cultural and military wars. Answer them the other way, and you have a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.” 

While I respect Volf and his work, I would oppose his presentation of the life-or-death significance of the question, about which he has written an entire book. Perhaps, instead of “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same god?”, more meaningful questions might be, “Are we Christians sole possessors of truth and knowledge?” and “How can Christians and Muslims engage each other with humility, including our beliefs and religious practices, in ways that encourage us to treat each other with love and dignity?” 

As Christians, we believe that God was made known in Jesus, and that we are saved and live through him. This does not mean, however, that we have a perfect knowledge of God or of how to worship God. Nor does it mean that we can’t learn or mature spiritually by looking at aspects of other faith traditions. This fact should make us more humble and compassionate towards people who have striven to know and enter into relationship with God and have reached conclusions other than our own on how to do that. I became Muslim because I was searching for the truth about God and thought I had found what God wanted me to believe and how to live my life. Giving Muslims the benefit of the doubt that they love God and want to be good people should be our default position. More important than the question about worship, then, is that we are able to see ourselves in each other, as people in general just trying to get by, lead happy and meaningful lives, and be in relationship with our Creator. 


Note:  The long quote is from Miroslav Volf, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miroslav-volf/god-versus-allah_b_829955.html

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Names in the Multitude: Reflections for All Saints Day

“It’s so incredibly quiet in here.” That was the main thought running through my head as I helped my dad carry some furniture out of my grandma’s house shortly after she passed away in 2013. That house, which had been the site of countless family gatherings and holidays over several decades, seemed empty. I missed my grandma’s whistling, loud, constant whistling that had echoed through the rooms. Usually, she was whistling hymns and spiritual songs, the same kind of music that she would play on her organ when I was a kid.

Though my grandma's passion for music was perhaps the most outward expression of my grandparents' faith, I had experienced it in other ways as well. It was rare for them to miss a service at the local church they had attended every Sunday for most of their lives; it was at their urging that my siblings and I were often forced out of bed by my parents to join them. Copies of the Bible could be found in almost every room of their house, of all kinds of sizes and translations. 

But when I was a kid, I didn't care about stuff like that. Sure, I loved my grandparents a lot, but the music and the Bibles, the sayings of grace before meals and the occasional references to God or Jesus Christ, were just the background to family visits. To be honest, I was more interested in making sure I ate as much of my grandma's homemade apple pie as I could, than talking to them about their beliefs. I didn't think of my grandparents as individuals who had had their own spiritual journeys and experiences, with unique wisdom and insights about God that I could learn from. They were simply my grandparents. 

By the time I put my faith back in Christ in 2012, my grandpa had passed, and my grandma was pretty ill. I couldn't remember having a single conversation with either of them about God, and I regretted that. I felt like I had taken their stable faith for granted as a child and young adult. I was convinced that I had lost out on some wonderful opportunities for learning from them as Christians. 

After my grandma's passing in March of 2013, I was blessed to acquire many of the Bibles, hymnals, and religious objects that had helped make their home the place of love and warmth that it was. (Including, by the way, the cross that I wear every day.) Leafing through the Bibles, I noticed a few bookmarks, underlined passages, and notes. There weren't too many of these; I got the impression that they had really meant to highlight their favorite verses and passages. 

Almost immediately, I realized what I had in front of me. This was my chance to talk to them, to find out what really mattered to them, what drove them to live out their faith day by day. For the next few hours, reading the verses they had underlined and commented on, I finally got to have that conversation with my grandparents that I had wanted. I like to think I learned a lot about them that day, about their relationship with God, about the comfort and peace they received from Him, about why they chose to live and love as joyfully and passionately as they did. And just like that, any feelings of guilt or regret about my grandparents were gone. 

I believe that this re-encounter with my grandparents was a gift from God. Among other things, the experience helped me to see this week’s passage from the book of Revelation differently. (Revelation 7:9-17) This passage had always seemed so abstract to me. I could never really relate to it on a spiritual or emotional level. But my thoughts about what John describes as a “great multitude that no one could count,” who cry in a loud voice declaring the salvation of God, have changed a lot in the last year or so. 

The reason? That great multitude, those believers who will never hunger or thirst again, is no longer faceless or nameless for me, because I know two of them. Their names are Ruth and Eugene Smith, and they are my grandparents. And standing beside them are some of your loved ones, the family members and friends who have left us in order to sing their never-ending hymn of glory to our God. 

And as much as we may miss them, as much as our hearts may feel close to breaking because of their absence, we can take comfort in two facts:  that God Himself has wiped away all the tears from their eyes, and that the bond of love that connects God’s Holy Church cannot be broken by something as weak as death. In spite of what we humans see as the huge chasm between Heaven and Earth, we are one Church along with the loved ones who have passed. We are all one body, created through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We continue to learn from these people, and we attempt to echo their song of praise to God in how we live our lives.

A few months ago, I moved to Philadelphia to start seminary. After driving me here and helping me move in to my apartment, the last words my dad said to me before he left were, “I know your grandparents would be proud of you right now. Me and your mom are, too.” I walked away a bit choked up, feeling grateful and hopeful. Grateful, for the love that the departed saints so often displayed while they were with us, for all the lessons they have taught us and will teach us about discipleship, and for the sure knowledge that they are now under the personal care of our Lord and Savior. And hopeful, that we will be able to live up to the example that they set for us, and that one day we will be able to continue our conversations with them in a place where death will never again be able to separate us. Amen.

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.