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Posts Tagged ‘Atheists’

Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Untamable God – Part 1

Most of us do not like the idea of serving a god we cannot somehow manipulate or control; that is if we are really honest with our selves.  No matter how “orthodox” our beliefs, we tend to want to invoke prayers, verses of Scripture and dubious faith promises to get our own way with our god.  Some believers will even use holy water, anointing oil, prayer clothes and other objects of faith like they were some type of medieval relic with a promise of power from this god to do what we want and think we need.  What if the real God of the universe looked at all of these efforts and said, “Meh.  Whatever.”  And then went on and did what He thought best for His plan and His creation.

That seems to be the picture we have of God in the Bible, though many evangelical believers, especially Charismatics and Pentecostals, will not like it.  Instead of an all-sovereign Being who serves His own purposes, we prefer a lesser god that can be manipulated with shaman-like faith chants and magical workings.  A careful reading of the Psalms, the book of Job, the Prophets (especially Daniel) gives us a completely different picture of God.  A portrait of God that seems to be missing from so much of our American Christian faith.

This failure to see the largeness of God – His majesty and sovereignty – has led many believers to a spiritually bankrupt faith.  When they enter into a difficult time, trial or test, they say all right prayers, quote all the right Scriptures and repeat the mantras of popular faith teachings.  They will seek prayer, the laying on of hands by other believers, anointing with oil and even send money to a popular faith preacher in hopes of getting their prayers answered – at least the way they want them answered.  If it works out the way they wanted, then their faith “works!”

However, if all of their efforts go by seemingly unnoticed by God, then they begin to question their faith and even God.  I cannot count how many times I have counseled with believers who think that they have done “all the right things” to get God’s attention and the answers they want only to discover “none of this works.”  I have been told by some seasoned believers who became embittered by such trials that “God has never done anything for me.  So, why should I believe in Him or serve Him?”  I have heard from others that “God has never answered my prayers or been there for me when I needed Him, therefore, I don’t believe He exists.”

God is reduced to a personal butler-deity or good-luck charm to get one’s wishes or at least protection from bad things.  What if God does not “play” by those rules?  Yes, sometimes out of mercy, grace or kindness He may act despite our ignorance.  However, what if in God’s Kingdom that is not the normal way in which the Sovereign of the universe acts or responds?  In fact, what if such approaches to His majesty is actually an affront to Him and offensive?

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One of the critiques of agnostics and atheists is If God really existed and was all-powerful, then why doesn’t He stop wars, famine, disease, etc from taking place?”  This, of course, is assuming that God would act in human history as…well, a human.  The bigness of God would, instead, require a God who is beyond human understanding and reasoning.  Since He knows His creation – especially the human ones – and sees all of history and all of future in total, He is not required to act for the benefit of anyone person or people group.

Others in the agnostic and atheist camp argueGod is morally responsible to do something about human suffering!”  The double edged-sword that 1) “God is responsible because He seems not to act,” and 2) “God is responsible because He seems not to care” is a powerful argument.  At least, it is if one assumes that God as God acts in the way a human agent would/should act in a particular space and time.  However, God is neither human nor bound by the limitations of knowledge or experience in our space and time.

Faith in an enormous, untamable God requires us to believe that He is not only all-powerful (omnipotent) but also all-knowing (omniscient).  Thus, He will act as He sees fit.  All creatures of the earth, the Bible tells us, must submit to His purposes.  When the Bible says that in the last day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) it is implying just that sentiment.  It does not mean just “Lord” as Savior, but also “Lord” as Master and Sovereign.  The uncomfortable fact of Scripture is that the One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Something that atheists cannot explain adequately is the presence of evil.  Their paradigm lacks an explanation for why good people suffer.  The materialistic determinism that guides most atheists’ belief system is an inadequate philosophical system when it comes to instructing us about the unexplainable, the mysterious or metaphysical. Our supposed evolutionary progress has not produced a more enlightened species; just the same bent toward evil only now loaded down with better technology.

Materialistic determinism in its most basic form says that reality is only what can be explained by our senses and measured according to mathematical and scientific theories.  On top of this, since we are bound by physical laws, our existence is predetermined and there is no use attempting to explain it, reason it or make meaning of it; especially with any sort of spiritual language.  There is no real hope for any kind of salvation per se.  Existence is a meaningless mix of biological material thrown in to a heartless universe established and maintained by a matrix of physical laws.

Unfortunately, the popular theology of many contemporary Christians is also inadequate in explain the presence of evil in the world.  It is often oversimplified or too personalized to be of any meaning to those who are really suffering.  Either everything evil is blamed on Satan and personal demons or it is denied all together and ignored.  Neither approach is healthy, helpful nor biblical.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The biblical story of human disobedience and rebellion in Genesis gives us the best framework for understanding the presence of evil and its effect upon humanity, creation and all the relationships between the two.  The Bible acknowledges the presence of evil as a product of humanity’s own fallen nature; that is fallen from what God originally intended.  It also acknowledges the genesis of evil in a particular being who has spread his deception, lies and rebellion throughout all of humanity.

However, unlike most world religions, the biblical view of good versus evil does not put God and Satan on equal terms.  God and Satan are not the universal ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ of existence.  In other words, no absolute dualism between God and Satan exists within Scripture.  This is made particularly clear in the story of the Messiah.  When God’s son comes to earth he confronts evil and its effects, each time winning the battle.  The ultimate battle is won when he defeats death and the grave itself by returning to life to rule and reign over his creation once again.  He is now crowned as the victor!

But wait.  Then why does sin and evil still exist in the world?  A helpful illustration of this may be found in one offered by Ken Blue, a contributor The Perspectives Reader:  Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  I came across his article while taking the Perspectives course a short while ago.  I found it a helpful illustration.

There is a great example in our recent human history that illustrates for us how a war already won could continue to be fought.  During World War II, the allied invasion called “D-Day” saw hundreds of thousands of allied troops landing at Normandy beach.  Their purpose and the goal of that effort was to establish and secure a beachhead on the European mainland.  When this was successfully accomplished, military experts understood that ultimate victory was established for the allies.  Nevertheless, many more bloody battles, some of them very costly, would be fought before the celebration of final victory could be realized: “V-E Day” (Victory in Europe Day).

For the purposes of Ken Blue’s illustration, “D-Day” in God’s war with evil and against the Evil One occurred with the death and resurrection of Christ.  This assured his final victory.  However, there are still battles being waged until “V-E Day” when the celebration of ultimate victory will begin with the return of the conquering Messiah.

Until that time, it is up to his true followers to be engaged in undoing the work of evil and the Evil One.  Many of these battles will be costly.  In some places, blood will be shed.  However, it is the mission of the Church to take the war to the enemy’s soil, establish beachheads and continue the fight until there is ultimate victory – liberation for all the captives.  Our enemy knows that the war is lost.  However, the Evil One with all his devices and deceptions will fight to take as much of God’s creation with him as possible.

So, while there are two Kingdom’s at war, one is already declared the ultimate victor.  The other already knows its time will come to an end.  The mission of every follower of the Conquering King is to be engaged in the battle through pray and sacrifice until the day of celebration.  More than anyone, they should understand why evil is present in the world.  More than anyone, they should be engaged in the mission of doing something about it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healthy Holistic Spirituality

Since Jesus’ departure from earth his disciples have attempted to follow his path of teaching and practice.  Unfortunately, he left behind ideas and concepts about a Kingdom.  He did not leave behind a lot of details about how this spiritual life should work – organizing the church, spiritual disciplines, and a myriad of other details that constantly change with times and cultures.  We are left to work that out as we commune with him through his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of the saints.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the church has performed fairly well.  It has its black moments in history.  It has suffered backsliding and experienced renewal and revival. It has been mixed with earthly governments and rule to its own demise and suffered through the revolutions of breaking free from them.  It has fallen prey to wolves in sheep’s clothing and expelled or rejected their rule and authority.

Nevertheless, the message and work of the Kingdom continues on and changes lives.  The message is that God has sent Jesus, his son, to restore the broken Creator-creation relationship with people everywhere and the work is that he is present in and among his people through his Holy Spirit to undo the works of evil and the Evil One.  As such, the church has been a major force throughout history in serving the poor, the hungry, the widows, the sick and the orphans.  Today, there is much work being done through its services to provide clean water, free health clinics to villages, free education for children, and working to eliminate preventable diseases.

Still, most of this type of work goes unnoticed by the world’s skeptics, cynics, agnostics and atheists.  This is not to suggest that the effort is to have some kind of global balance sheet of “good things” versus “bad things” done by Christians.  Nothing will satisfy those who look with anger and prejudice against others for whatever reasons.  The point simply is this:  The Kingdom of God has always been about a message accompanied by a work.

When Jesus ministered on earth, his sermons most often followed his work among the sick, demon possessed, oppressed, poor and outcasts of society.  He was not satisfied with staying in the local synagogue preaching and teaching.  Neither was he content with staying where he was most popular and most successful according to statistics.  He was always about his Heavenly Father‘s business.  There was work to be done.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many early sermons.  Almost all of them followed some work by miracle or powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit.  James expects this pattern to be continued and chides his readers through his letters for having faith without works.  As such, their faith was dead and worthless.  Faith not only has a message but it has a work that it must do.

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I am wondering if believers in any given congregation in our area can identify these two things in their local church.   What is the message of the church?  Can they summarize it precisely and succinctly so that their neighbor or co-worker could understand it?  Just as importantly, what is the work of the church?  What work does their local fellowship of believers do to undo the work of evil and the Evil One around them?  What activities are their congregation engaged in to affect the lives of the least, last and lost of the community they live in?

The church’s credibility is not just in the integrity of its message – something we in the Evangelical churches like to focus upon.  The real credibility of the church is in the work it does that aligns with its message:  God has come to restore humankind and creation to himself by inviting everyone into relationship with him and work with him to undo the work of evil and the Evil One.  While we work on getting the message out, it might be time to also roll up our sleeves and get to work in the world around us.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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