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For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bullying within God's Church

In his most recent post, Gavin Rumney (Otagosh http://otagosh.blogspot.com/) takes on an article in Vision magazine dealing with bullying. The article ("Bullies, Allies and Victims") is a well written treatise on the serious and harmful effects that bullying inflicts on all of us. Mr. Rumney, however, underscores the irony of such an article appearing in the magazine of a group that has practiced bullying within its own ranks. Although I think that Mr. Rumney would agree that an article addressing this destructive phenomenon is a positive, I concur with his assessment that this is also akin to pointing out the speck in someone else's eye when you have a beam in your own.

Indeed, many individuals within the Church of God culture seem completely oblivious to the bullying that they have perpetrated and/or been subjected to within their own community! The Vision article even points out the "exquisite form of emotional pain" that is inflicted when someone is ostracized from a group. It goes on to underscore the critical role that the exploitation of an imbalance in power plays in bullying. Talk about irony and hypocrisy!

Most (not all) of the Church of God culture has emphasized the supreme spiritual authority of ministers, evangelists, prophets and apostles over their flocks. The imbalance of power between the ministerial hierarchy has not only been exploited - it has been celebrated! Any resistance to that authority is portrayed as resistance to (or rebellion against) God himself! The only acceptable view is the one of the bully at the top of the heap. Moreover, everyone is continually reminded just how dangerous it is to snipe at the leader of the pack.

For those who refuse to submit to the bully, the bully always has the option of ignoring or excluding you! This phenomenon is not exclusive to the Church of God culture either. When you look at all of the "Christian" groups extant in the world, it is truly amazing just how many of them practice some form of excommunication, disfellowshipping or shunning. Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, the Amish and Church of Christ folks all employ some form of the practice to keep their members in check. What's even worse - the bully at the top forces all of his underlings to participate in the practice! Friends and families are often forced to bully their loved ones to avoid facing the same censure. Moreover, since the group that is doing the excluding is "God's Church," that means that the excluded person is in danger of losing their salvation. Talk about psychological abuse!

Yes, I agree with Gavin: Get your own house in order before you go pointing the finger at others! Bullying is bad in any setting, but it seems even more horrendous when employed within the bounds of God's Church. What do you think?

Monday, September 29, 2014

God's Promise to David

Herbert W. Armstrong and his followers have written extensively about God's promise to King David of an eternal throne. Many of their publications deal with this promise specifically and discuss it within the larger context of the United States and Great Britain in Bible prophecy. In brief, Armstrong taught that the throne of David has continued to exist down through the ages and is currently occupied by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. Although Grace Communion International (the former Worldwide Church of God) no longer accepts or teaches this doctrine, many of Armstrong's other followers still embrace it and teach it as part of their evangelistic outreach to the world.

In fact, as someone who formerly belonged to the Worldwide Church and continues to follow developments within that splintered community, I noticed that Gerald Flurry of the Philadelphia Church of God spoke on the subject again in his most recent appearance on their program The Key of David. In the program, Mr. Flurry underscored the central importance of this doctrine to the "descendants" of ancient Israel and the rest of the world. He even went so far as to assert that no other point of doctrine has the ability to reinforce one's faith in God and the Bible like this one! He invited his listeners to study the subject for themselves and receive the blessings that he claimed would be sure to flow from their receipt of this knowledge.

Well, what about these claims? Does Queen Elizabeth II occupy David's throne? Has David's dynasty continued to exist down through the ages to the present day? Did God break his promise to David? Let's take a brief look at the scriptural and historical evidence relative to these questions.

After rejecting David's plans to build a temple, God told Nathan to deliver a special message to the king. We read: "And it shall come to pass, when thy days be expired that thou must go to be with thy fathers, that I will raise up thy seed after thee, which shall be of thy sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me an house, and I will stablish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my mercy away from him, as I took it from him that was before thee [Saul]: But I will settle him in mine house and in my kingdom forever: and his throne shall be established for evermore." (I Chronicles 17:11-14, KJV, emphasis mine - compare to II Samuel 7:12-16) Notice that, in both of these passages, the promise appears to be without strings or conditions - an unbreakable promise of God.

We can all agree that this message was directed at King David, but who was God talking about in terms of fulfilling this promise to David? Was God talking about Solomon? Was "He" talking about Jesus Christ? Or was he talking about both of them? The context makes clear that the promise was to be fulfilled through an individual male descendant, but this passage alone does not make clear who that person was to be.

Did God ever discuss this promise with Solomon? As a matter of fact, "He" did. When Solomon built and dedicated the Temple for God in Jerusalem, we are informed that God appeared to him during the night and spoke to the young king. (II Chronicles 7:12) We read: "And as for thee, if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, and do according to all that I have commanded thee, and shalt observe my statutes and my judgments; Then will I stablish the throne of thy kingdom, according as I have covenanted with David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man to be ruler in Israel." (II Chronicles 7:17-18) Notice here that Solomon's participation in the covenant that God had made with his father was conditional. Solomon would only share in that promise if he followed his father's example, followed God's instructions and obeyed God's laws.

What did Solomon do? We read: "For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange [foreign] wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed to their gods." (I Kings 11:4-8) So we see that Solomon violated all three of the conditions that God had laid down for his eligibility to participate in the promises that "He" had made to his father David.

As a consequence, the kingdom was divided into two parts [Judah and Israel] upon Solomon's death. (I Kings 12 and II Chronicles 10) Thereafter, all of the kings of Israel were derived from tribes other than the tribe of Judah (David's tribe), which would seem to nullify Jacob's prediction that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah." (Genesis 49:10) Moreover, the Kingdom of Israel was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians (II Kings 17 & 18); and the Kingdom of Judah was eventually destroyed by the Babylonians (II Kings 25). In fact, we are told that Zedekiah [the last King of Judah] was forced to witness the execution of ALL of his sons before having his eyes gouged out and being carried away to imprisonment in Babylon. (II Kings 25:7)

Now how do we reconcile that with what we read in the eighty-ninth psalm? In speaking of David, Ethan wrote: "My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven." (Psalm 89:28-37) Now that seems like a pretty air-tight promise or covenant to me - something that doesn't give God any wiggle room! So, I ask again, how do we reconcile that with the destruction of David's dynasty that is clearly recorded in the books of II Kings and II Chronicles?

Herbert Armstrong claimed that the prophet Jeremiah took one of Zedekiah's daughters to Ireland and arranged for her to marry one of the tribal kings on that island. Leaving aside the question of whether such myths and legends can or should be trusted, wouldn't such an arrangement still violate the terms of the Davidic covenant? After all, the princess was not a prince and she did not reign in her own right - her husband was the king. Hence, even if we concede that their son reigned after them, wouldn't that suggest that one Davidic generation had been skipped? And what about the years in between Zedekiah's fall and his daughter's marriage to the Irish king? What about the women who have occupied the Scottish and English thrones since then? Didn't the scripture indicate that David's son(s) would reign on his throne? What about the period known to history as the Interregnum [meaning between the reigns]? There were over eleven years [1649-1660] between the execution of Charles I and the accession of his son [Charles II] to the throne of England. In the intervening years, England was ruled by the Lord Protector as a Commonwealth or Republic.

In the light of this claim about the prophet Jeremiah, it is interesting to note what that prophet had to say about this whole affair. We read: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will perform that good thing which I have promised unto the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days, and at that time, will I cause the Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land...For thus saith the Lord; David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel...If ye can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, and that there should not be day and night in their season; then may also my covenant be broken with David my servant, that he should not have a son to reign upon his throne..." (Jeremiah 33:14-21) In other words, Jeremiah clearly points to the Messiah as the fulfillment of this promise to David!

This message is further reinforced by what the other prophets wrote about the Messiah. Isaiah wrote: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder...of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." (Isaiah 9:6-7) Likewise, we read: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse [David's father], and a Branch shall grow out of his roots...But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth...And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins...They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord...And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious." (Isaiah 11:1-10) Finally, in the book of Amos, we read: "In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old..." (Amos 9:11) One question here: If David's dynasty continued to exist after its fall, then why would there be any need to someday resurrect it in this fashion?

This interpretation of these prophecies is further reinforced by the New Testament. We read in "The Gospel According to Matthew" that Jesus Christ was the son of David. (Matthew 1:1 & 16) Indeed, Christ is referred to as the "son of David" throughout the pages of this account of his life. When the angel Gabriel announced Christ's birth to his mother Mary, we are told that he said: "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:30-33) The Gospel of Luke also includes another genealogical table demonstrating Christ's connection to King David. (Luke 3:23-31) And, since the gospels all make clear that Jesus was a Jew, Jacob's prediction about the scepter never departing from Judah would also be fulfilled through Christ.

Hence, to suggest that God's promise to David was fulfilled through Solomon (or by any other physical means) seems almost blasphemous to this writer. To me, Scripture (both Old and New Testament) makes very plain that Jesus Christ is considered by God to be the fulfillment of "His" covenant with David. What do you think?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

God's Imperfect Apostles

Many Christians have attributed semi-divine status to the apostles. Some of them believe that these men were incapable of errors when acting in matters related to faith and church. In short, there are a large number of Christians who believe that these men were always acting in the capacity of God's instruments - that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit made them infallible. Is this, however, the truth? Were these men subject to the same weaknesses, frailties and imperfections that all humans experience? And, if so, how can we trust what they wrote (or what others wrote about them)?

First, an objective evaluation of the scriptural evidence related to this topic demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that these men were very human and very fallible. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all simple fishermen when Christ called them to be his disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), and Simon was a Jewish nationalist (verse 4). The gospel accounts tell us that Judas betrayed him to the authorities (Matthew 26:14-16, 47-49), all twelve of these men abandoned Christ in his hour of need (Matthew 26:56), Peter denied him on three separate occasions the night that he was arrested (Matthew 26:69-75) and Paul started out as an Orthodox Jew who persecuted the Christian Church (Acts 9:1-2). "That was prior to their conversion!" some of my conservative friends will protest.

Fair enough, let's take a look at their behavior after they were converted. Even though Christ had instructed them all to "go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19), we know that they only preached the gospel to the Jews for many years after he ascended into heaven (Acts 6:7, 9:31). In fact, God had to give Peter a special vision to move the apostle to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Even then, the church was slow to get started on the Great Commission (Acts 11). At first, even Paul began preaching to the Jewish citizens of the Gentile cities that he visited (Acts 13). In other words, these men were a little slow and dense when it came to following Divine instructions! Like many of their predecessors in the Old Testament, they had to be pushed and prodded into performing the tasks that God had given them to do.

There was also apparently a great fuss within the church over just how much of the Mosaic Law the Gentiles would be required to obey (Acts 15). In fact, we are told that they had to have a great council of the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem to settle the matter (same chapter). Although the ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles was affirmed by this council, we read that Paul and Barnabas later had a dispute over who should accompany them in that effort and parted company because they couldn't resolve their differences (Acts 15:36-41). Does that sound like Christian behavior to you? Wasn't their dispute directly related to their ministry and the Church?

In his letter to God's Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul reveals that there were deep divisions extant within that congregation. He said that some of the people claimed to be followers of Paul, some Apollos and others Peter (I Corinthians 1:12). In light of this information, one has to wonder if these leaders had any culpability in producing or nurturing this kind of an environment within the Church? To be sure, Paul's letter seeks to correct the situation; but one is still left to wonder about how and why it developed in the first place!

In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul reveals that he angrily confronted Peter over his hypocritical conduct toward Gentile Christians when in the presence of Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). Apparently he had to remind Peter (himself an apostle, author of Scripture and acknowledged leader within the Church - some say the first Pope) that Christians are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic Law (verses 15-16). I don't know about you, but it certainly sounds to me like Peter was in error regarding this matter of the faith (at least, that seems to be what Paul is saying)!

Paul, on the other hand, sometimes seems riddled with insecurity about his apostleship and place within the Church (I Corinthians 9:1-2, 15:9, Galatians 1 & 2). Paul is also quick to point out on a number of occasions that he is giving his opinion on certain matters - that he is not operating under direct instructions from the Lord (I Corinthians 7:6-8, 12, 25 and 40). We are also informed in the book of Acts that the Bereans were "more noble" than the saints at Thessalonica because they "searched the scriptures" every day to make sure that what Paul was telling them was corroborated by those Scriptures (Acts 17:11). In other words, it wasn't the truth just because Paul said it! Finally, in his second general epistle, Peter writes that some of Paul's "comments are hard to understand" and subject to misinterpretation by certain people (II Peter 3:15-16).

In addition to the scriptural evidence cited within this post, we must carefully consider the matter from the perspective of our own experience and reasoning. Have you ever known a Christian who was perfect? Didn't John say that any Christian who claims to be without sin is not only fooling themselves, but is also "not living in the truth" (I John 1:8-10)? Didn't Paul (the apostle and author of Scripture) confess that he was still struggling against his own sinful nature on a daily basis (Romans 7:14-25)? Have you ever known anyone who wasn't subject to the same human frailties, mistakes and errors that we all make from time to time? Are you confident that everything that you believe about God and Christianity is "the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Is there any possibility that you could be wrong about something? What did Paul mean when he said that we (he included himself) now "see through a glass darkly" (I Corinthians 13:12)? Was Paul implying in this passage that he wouldn't have all of the answers until he was in God's Kingdom? It certainly sounds that way to me.

Hence, if these men (the apostles) were subject to error and mistakes, how can we trust anything they told us? How do you trust anything that anyone has ever told you? Did your parents make mistakes? Did that cause you to reject everything that they ever told you? Has anyone ever told you that they love you? Did their mistakes prevent you from believing in that love? Once again, isn't it just a little illogical (maybe even ridiculous) to suggest that everything that someone tells you is an either/or proposition? How do we know the difference between truth and falsehood? The guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit is the key. Nevertheless, we must always be willing to acknowledge that our willingness to accept that guidance is not always what it should be. Just like Peter, Paul, James and John, we can be wrong sometimes! Moreover, our admission of this fact is not the end of the world. I agree with Paul - someday we will know more than we do today - someday we will be perfect. What do you think?

Friday, September 26, 2014

What a Godly parental perspective looks like!

This is one of the most beautiful posts that I have ever read. I think that Pastor John Pavlovitz has captured the love that God expects of parents - the same kind of love that "He" exhibits toward us. The article is entitled "If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From a Christian Pastor/Parent." He promises: 1) not to hide the fact, 2) to pray for them (and he makes clear that he won't be asking for a "fix" or "healing"), 3) to love them with an "open-hearted" embrace, and 4) to accept homosexuality as part of their identity. Hope my readers enjoy this as much as I did:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah

Critics of the Bible have dismissed many of the prophecies of the Old Testament as being made after the fact or having been written in such vague language as to be open to almost any interpretation. Fair enough, but what about all of the prophecies dealing with the Messiah? Let's notice just a few of them:

Addressing the serpent after it caused the humans to eat the forbidden fruit, God said: "And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." -- Genesis 3:15

After instructing the Israelites to not follow the pagan practices of the nations who inhabited the Promised Land prior to their arrival, we read: "Moses continued, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him...I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him.'" -- Deuteronomy 18:15-18

We are informed that God gave Nathan this message for King David: "Furthermore, the Lord declares that he will make a house for you - a dynasty of kings! For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. He is the one who will build a house - a temple - for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever." -- II Samuel 7:11-13

This psalm was attributed to King David: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?...But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all! Everyone who sees me mocks me. They sneer and shake their heads, saying, 'Is this the one who relies on the Lord? Then let the Lord save him! If the Lord loves him so much, let the Lord rescue him!'...My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay...My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing." -- Psalm 22

After telling the Israelites that they would be punished for their sins and experience a time of dark despair, Isaiah wrote: "Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine...For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven's Armies will make this happen!" -- Isaiah 9:1-7

Isaiah also wrote: "Out of the stump of David's family will grow a shoot - yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He will delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay. He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited." -- Isaiah 11:1-4

And: "My servant grew up in the Lord's presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected - a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed...He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth." -- Isaiah 53:2-7

I don't know about you, but it sure sounds to me like Jesus and his disciples patterned the story of his life on these prophecies - not on some pagan mishmash! What do you think?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why I believe in Jesus Christ and the religion he founded

This post was inspired by some comments from one of my readers regarding the origins of Christianity. Many folks have alleged that the roots of the Christian religion can be traced to pagan mythology (see The Pagan Origins of Jesus Christ and Christianity at http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/biblianazar/esp_biblianazar_33.htm). Some individuals have even asserted that Jesus Christ is a fictitious character that was created by a few imaginative individuals who sought to make their new religion more appealing to the heathen masses by reworking some of the old stories associated with their gods. Nevertheless, this blogger finds abundant evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ was a real personage who founded a unique religion based on the reconciliation of an estranged humanity to THE GOD through himself.

Although there are two references to Jesus in the writings of the Jewish Historian Josephus, critics have alleged that the original manuscripts have been embellished by later Christian writers (which I think has some merit in the case of one of those references). As a consequence of this tampering, we will ignore these specific references as direct evidence of Christ's existence. Nevertheless, Josephus and other period historians do corroborate key elements of the New Testament story. For instance, no one disputes the existence of the Jews, Romans, Herod, his family, Pilate, Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, Judea, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, synagogues, Temple, etc. In similar fashion, no one disputes that scrolls of the Torah were kept in synagogues (and that they were read on the Sabbath), the Romans commonly employed crucifixion as a means of capital punishment, the Jews commonly used tombs hewn out of stone, marriage festivals were an important tradition within Jewish communities of the time, the High Priest and Sanhedrin were the most important elements of authority within the Jewish community, etc.

In addition to these facts, most biblical scholars agree that many of the epistles of the New Testament were composed prior to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (70 A.D.) In fact, most of those same scholars say that some of these epistles were written before the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). For instance, there is general agreement that Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians and I & II Thessalonians were all written prior to 60 A.D. This would mean that all of these letters were composed before the earliest Gospel (Mark). For our purposes, suffice it to say that there is some sound reasoning and outstanding scholarship behind dating these writings within these ranges. I encourage my readers to check out the notations in their own study bibles or peruse some of the fine commentaries that are available for that purpose. For those who would characterize textual criticism as highly speculative, I would say that attributing biblical stories to myths about Isis, Osiris and Horus (or Simon Magus) makes the biblical textual work look like scientific and historical fact (to demonstrate my point, I encourage my readers to check out the Egyptian story about these characters at http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythisis.htm - does that sound like the Bible to you?).

Anyway, my point in mentioning the dating of these epistles is that they corroborate key elements of the Gospel accounts. Paul opens his letter to the saints at Rome by saying that the prophets had foretold the coming of Jesus Christ, that he was a descendant of David and was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." (Romans 1:2-4) He tells the Corinthians that Christ was crucified. (I Corinthians 2:2) He also gives them an account of Christ's "Last Supper" with his disciples. (I Corinthians 11:23-26) Paul also made several references to the cross of Christ in these letters. (e.g. I Corinthians 1:17-18, Galatians 6:12, 14) He also talks about Peter, one of the original apostles. (Galatians 2) There are also numerous references to Christ's promise to someday resurrect his followers and return to this earth. (I Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 3:13, 5:23 and 4:13-17)

To be fair, there are some scholars who dispute the fact that Paul wrote all of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. I'd say that people who say such things are not paying much attention to what the author himself reveals about how the letters were written! In most instances, we are informed within the letter that someone else actually wrote the letter, or that it was co-authored with at least one other person. (e.g. Romans 16:22, I Corinthians 16:21, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 4:18 and I Thessalonians 1:1) Hence, it is understandable that there would be differences in style, vocabulary and phraseology among the letters. Even so, there are few people who dispute that Paul wrote the letters mentioned above in connection with the Gospel accounts.

In addition to the internal evidence provided by the writings of the New Testament, there is the writings of the early "Church Fathers" to consider. Clement of Rome wrote about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the resurrection of the dead, quotes the book of Hebrews, offices within the church and the practice of brotherly love among believers. Ignatius of Antioch talks about the virgin birth of Christ, church governance, guarding against false teachers, the martyrdom of Paul and quotes extensively from Scripture. Polycarp wrote about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, uses quotations from the Gospels and letters of Peter and Paul, church governance and mentions Ignatius of Antioch. The Didache (about 100 A.D.) talks about baptism, recites the Lord's prayer, discusses the communion service, talks about the offices within the church and enjoins its readers to be watchful for the second coming of the Lord.

Finally, I would add to all of this documentary evidence the evidence of my own experiences as a Christian. Although this evidence cannot be characterized as objective, impartial or scientific, it is meaningful to me (and perhaps it will be to some of my readers). I have felt the redeeming grace of Christ at work in my own life. I have felt the pull, leadership and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I have experienced the peace that comes through Christ, and many things that I would characterize as miracles.

For all of these reasons and more, I believe that Jesus Christ was an extraordinary individual who actually existed and founded a religion that continues to exist up to the time of this writing. I also believe that his teachings demonstrate that he came from THE GOD, and that he is the most perfect representation of that God that mankind has ever seen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Where is God when the bombs begin to drop?

Late last night, we received word that the United States had begun to bomb ISIL targets within Syria. We are reminded too that there is an ongoing civil war within that country and its neighbor Iraq. Likewise, these events resurrect memories of the last decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Taken together, these experiences cause some of us in the United States to ponder God's role in these events. Do these U.S. actions enjoy Divine approval? Is God on the side of the U.S. in these conflicts? Is God against the Muslim extremists and terrorists? There is also the larger question to consider: Does God regard war as a necessary or acceptable tool to achieve peace and security?

I think that we can all agree that these are important questions, and I'm also sure that the readers of this blog could supply many different answers to them. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, one could certainly point to instances within their scriptures that would seem to indicate that God does regard war as an acceptable means to an end. As we have pointed out here before, there are numerous instances within the Judeo-Christian scriptures where God is given the credit for wars (some of them little more than massacres or genocidal campaigns). There are, however, other reasons within those same scriptures to support a view of God that rejects warfare, and I believe that these are more compelling.

To begin, the commandments against killing/murdering and stealing (Exodus 20:13, 15) support this view. Clearly, both of these commandments suggest that God places a premium on human life. Jesus Christ also magnified the application of the commandment against murder by stating that anyone who was even angry with their brother without cause was guilty of the spirit of murder. (Matthew 5:21-22) These same scriptures also make God the source, sustainer and ultimate owner of all life. Hence, one could reasonably conclude that anyone who takes a life without Divine approval is guilty of stealing. Furthermore, we have pointed out in previous posts here that there are many scriptures that underscore God's love, compassion, kindness and mercy. In fact, John said that God is love. (I John 4:8, 16)

The Mosaic Law also makes clear that vengeance was one of the Lord's prerogatives. (Deuteronomy 32:35) It also explicitly forbids anyone from taking vengeance into their own hands. (Leviticus 19:18) Jesus Christ reaffirmed this principle when he instructed his followers to turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5:39) In similar fashion, Paul underscored the importance of this principle by quoting the verses dealing with it in the Old Testament. (Romans 12:19)

We also have the testimony of two prophets about how God will regard war when "He" establishes his kingdom on this earth. Isaiah and Micah both indicate that God will mediate disputes between nations, beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Indeed, they both indicate that warfare will become obsolete; and that people will no longer receive any training in that regard. (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3)

While this blogger agrees that these views are more consistent with the overall picture of God's character as outlined in those scriptures, I think that the most compelling statement of God's views on human warfare are encapsulated in some principles laid down in the book of Genesis. In short, I subscribe to the view that the story of Adam and Eve is symbolic of human rejection of Divine guidance and revelation. Likewise, their ejection from the Garden of Eden is symbolic of God's response to mankind's rejection of "His" guidance. In other words, God removed mankind from having immediate and direct access to the Divine. Humans wanted to make their own decisions and determinations about what did or did not constitute moral behavior, so God allowed them to do just that. In effect, God wanted mankind to learn the lesson that leaning on his own understanding was a terrible mistake that would lead to much grief and sorrow. Nevertheless, God reserved the right to someday intervene in the affairs of mankind and reconcile them to himself.

If you think about it, this is mankind's world - influenced and misled by Satan the Devil. In order for "turn the other cheek" to really work, everyone would have to be on the same sheet of music - on God's sheet of music. Hence, for a government to turn the other cheek in this world would be tantamount to national suicide. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this world who believe that might makes right. If someone turned the other cheek in this world, their adversary/antagonist would be quick to smack that one too (and probably try to cut their throat while they had their head turned)! As a general rule (with the above noted exception), God is not going to intervene in our disputes - we are on our own right now. That's not to say that God is indifferent or doesn't recognize that one party is an aggressor in some conflict (or is guilty of some evil). In those instances, I believe that God can intervene (usually in a small or very limited fashion) when asked to do so by those who are desirous of living within "His" will. Still, in most instances, the fight is ours. What do you think?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Can you see God in that tree?

"When I see birches bend to left and right - Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy's been swinging them." -- Robert Frost

I have loved trees all of my life. I enjoyed climbing them as a kid, and I studied them when I attended college. I have admired their majestic beauty, eaten their fruits/nuts, harvested their sap, used their wood in building projects and to provide fuel for our fireplace. For me, trees are one of God's most spectacular miracles.

Consider for just a moment how trees manufacture their own food by a process we call photosynthesis. The tree absorbs water and minerals from the soil through its root system and transports it up through the trunk to the branches via its xylem. (In fact, each ring that we observe in the stump of a tree that has been felled represents the xylem from one growing season.) The leaves then take the water and minerals and absorb hydrogen, carbon and oxygen from the air and use the sun's energy to make sugars that are then transported to other parts of the plant via the phloem. This circulatory system is further facilitated and maintained by a controlled evaporation of water from the surface of the leaves. It is an amazing process!

The variety of trees is also stupendous. There are the gymnosperms (conifers) and angiosperms (flowering). They can be evergreens or deciduous (lose their leaves). There are great families of trees like the oaks, hickories and maples. There are tree ferns and palm trees. There is the Ginko tree (Ginko biloba) which is the only representative of what was a much larger family of trees many millions of years ago.

Trees also display a wide range of sizes and shapes. The Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) only grows up to about thirty feet high and has a small trunk, while the Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) can grow up to three hundred and sixty feet tall and have a trunk that is wide enough to cut a tunnel through that would accommodate the passage of a car!

The Willow tree is the source of what is arguably the most important medicine that man has ever discovered - the aspirin. The roots of the Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) make a delicious tea, and the sap of the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) makes an excellent syrup for pancakes. Oaks produce cork and tannin. The Rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) provides the latex to make rubber. Take just a moment to think about the variety of fruits that trees make available for our use (apples, peaches, pears, cherries, oranges, lemons and olives to name a few). Think about the delicious nuts that they provide for us (pecans, walnuts and almonds to name a few). They are also the source of pulp for the paper that we employ to write poetry and produce books.

Think for just a moment about the majestic beauty of a forest of these trees, and the habitat that they provide for all kinds of insect and animal life. Think about the shade that they provide us on a hot summer day, and the protection that they afford against a cold winter wind. And what about the eye candy that we all receive as the green chlorophyll breaks down in the leaves each fall in deciduous forests, and the other pigments which they contain are revealed to us?

Yes, when I look at a tree, I can see God in it. What about you?

Reference Trees, by Ridsdale, White and Usher, published by Metro Books of New York, 2010

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is fame and fortune evidence of God's favor?

"Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You've got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!"-- Joel Osteen (https://www.joelosteen.com)

According to America's most popular preacher, God created each and every one of us to be successful. In his latest book You Can, You Will, he identifies eight characteristics that he claims are present in all successful people. Among these characteristics, two of them stood out to me as encapsulating this man's message and ministry: Positive thinking and An expectation that good things will happen.

Joel Osteen, however, is not the first pastor/evangelist to preach this kind of message. Some of my readers will remember Norman Vincent Peale and his The Power of Positive Thinking. Others will recall the ministry of Herbert W. Armstrong, and how he held up the growth and success of his church as evidence of God's favor. Like Osteen, Armstrong also published a booklet entitled The Seven Laws of Success in which he supposedly identified the laws that govern success. The clear implication being that unsuccessful people were not practicing those laws and were consequently not enjoying God's favor.

Nevertheless, religious folks are not the only ones who have suggested such a correlation between fame/fortune and being favored by the cosmos. Many folks have looked at Darwin's observations about the "survival of the fittest" and have attempted to apply them to human societies (especially in the realms of economics and politics). For many people, "the cream always rises to the top." The famous German sociologist, Max Weber, attempted to account for the success of the Western Capitalist countries by underscoring their adherence to the Protestant Work Ethic.

In all of these instances, the implication is that "success" in this life is a clear indication of God's favor. Likewise, an acceptance of this view also implies that those who are not experiencing that success are on the receiving end of God's indifference or displeasure. In short, those who are experiencing the good things in this life must be doing what is right in God's sight.

How do these views stack up against what is revealed in Scripture? In the final analysis, is fame and fortune evidence of God's favor?

The regular readers of this blog will recall that we have talked about the role of time and chance in human life in previous posts. In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read: "I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time." (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Let's think about this passage for a moment. Isn't that absolutely true? Don't we all know hard working, diligent, bright people who are not "successful" in this life? Haven't we all been in situations where someone of inferior talent, ability and/or character has been our boss or superior?

Did Jesus Christ promise his followers a life of moonlight and magnolias? Toward the end of his ministry, Christ said to his disciples: "I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) But didn't Christ also say, "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life?" (John 10:10) Was he talking here about material success and wealth? Read the rest of the chapter. Wasn't Christ clearly talking about spiritual salvation in this passage?

What did Christ say about wealth? "I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I'll say it again - it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Matthew 19:23) Notice that this passage is the culmination of an encounter with a rich young man who had asked Christ "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (verse 16) Jesus had begun to answer him by instructing him to keep the Ten Commandments. (verses 17-18) To which, the young man replied that he had been obeying them all of his life. (verse 20) Then Jesus told him to "go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (verse 21) The young man, however, was not prepared to give up his wealth. (verse 22)

In similar fashion, we are told that "Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 'I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.'" (Mark 12:41-44) That sure sounds to me like material wealth was not an indication of Christ's favor!

What about social position? Did Christ give preferential treatment to those who belonged to the religious and political elite of his day? Didn't Christ keep company with the poor, sick, whores, Samaritans and tax collectors? Didn't James admonish the saints not to show preferential treatment to the elite members of society who worshiped with them? (James 2:1-7) Didn't God choose the weak and foolish people of this world to confound those who are mighty? (I Corinthians 1:27)

Hence, I would caution anyone against concluding that fame and fortune are evidence of God's favor. I'd say that being in the right place at the right time is probably a better explanation of this phenomenon. Although hard work and perseverance can certainly contribute to making the most of such opportunities, they are obviously not determinative in that respect. In short, the cream doesn't always rise to the top - sometimes other things float on the surface!

Friday, September 19, 2014

The strength to go on

Isaiah prophesied that Jesus Christ would be "despised and rejected - a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief." (Isaiah 53:3) He went on to say that "He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed." (verse 5) He was able to endure all of those things because of his absolute faith in God's plan to redeem all of us through his suffering and death. That faith in God gave him the strength to complete the work that God had given him to do.

It is truly inspiring to observe the storms and sufferings that some people have endured by looking to God. In fact, one is tempted to characterize this phenomenon as miraculous. It is, however, not a rare phenomenon. There have been numerous examples of people down through the centuries of human history who have endured loss and sorrow in this same fashion. My own grandmother weathered rheumatoid arthritis (along with numerous other health problems) by looking to God on a daily basis for the strength to face her burdens. She believed that God had given her a task to perform - raising me and my brother. And, despite numerous pronouncements by her doctors that she would not be able to complete her work, she persisted and finished it.

Hence, I have always thought it appropriate that her favorite passage from the Bible was the very one that addresses this issue of "the strength to go on." Isaiah wrote: "Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:28-31)

In short, my grandmother understood what many people had understood before her - including her Lord and Savior. She knew that those who rely on God will find the strength to go on - even in the face of overwhelming catastrophe and defeat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Does God hate Obamacare?

Although many conservative Christians have the good sense not to openly vocalize the sentiment, I suspect that in their heart of hearts many of them believe that God is a Republican. Of course, the corollary to this belief is that President Barack Obama and the Democrats belong to the Devil. Hence, as the Affordable Care Act was formulated and passed by the President and his party, it must be satanic - right? Moreover, the Republican Party's dogged resistance to the act and numerous attempts to overturn it are seen as further proof that God doesn't like it (After all, if "His" party is opposed to the measure, then God must be opposed to it as well).

Is it just me, or does that sound like circular reasoning to you too? Do Republicans have a lock on God's affections because they say that they do? or Do they stand on God's side because they support the things that "He" supports and oppose the things that "He" opposes? Is the principle of universal health care an idea with satanic origins?

It is interesting to note that, in terms of the political origins of this concept (universal health care) vis-à-vis the United States, it was one of the most popular Republican presidents of all times who first ran for the presidency on this principle a little over one hundred years ago! In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt made an unsuccessful bid for a third term as the candidate of the Progressive or Bull Moose Party. During this campaign, he advocated for a stronger role for the federal government in protecting the health of its citizens and ensuring that everyone had access to adequate and appropriate care when sick.

Let's take just a moment to look at the morality of the question by asking ourselves a few questions. Is profit an acceptable motive for providing health care to people? Should a person be entitled to adequate health care because they have a million dollars in their pocket or because they can afford private health insurance? Is it appropriate to deny adequate health care to someone because they cannot afford to pay for it? What good does it do to have the best health care system in the world when citizens don't have access to it? How is it morally right for the King of Saudi Arabia to be able to obtain care at the Cleveland Clinic when many of the poor Black citizens of Cleveland, Ohio don't have access to those same facilities?

A few years ago, Rebecca Skloot wrote a book entitled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I invite all of my conservative friends to read this excellent book. In it, Skloot tells the story of a young and poor Black woman dying from cancer whose cells became the focus of medical research for the next sixty years. The author recounts how doctors removed some of the cancerous cells from her body and used them in experiments that led to the development of a polio vaccine and a host of other medical breakthroughs that have made a great deal of money for a whole lot of people. Her family, however, remained poor and unable to afford health insurance or adequate health care for themselves. The truth is: If this story doesn't prick your conscience, nothing will.

Should issues of life and death be decided in the marketplace? Should money be the principal factor in deciding who has access to health care and who does not? How do you think that God would answer these questions?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does God oppose all abortions?

As with most other issues, people tend to project their own views regarding abortion onto God. We tend to reach our own conclusions about this topic, and then proceed to justify it by gathering evidence that supports our view. The flip side of this approach is that we all tend to reject and/or ignore any evidence that contradicts our view. Moreover, whatever conclusions we reach about abortion, that must be God's view; because we are on God's side - right?

Some of you will probably think that I am crazy for addressing such an emotionally charged issue, but maybe it's time for all of us to stop and take a look at what we believe about abortion (and why we believe it). I'm not saying that emotion is a bad thing - especially relative to issues involving life and death. However, I am saying that any opinion that is based entirely on emotion is obviously not the product of objective reasoning.

Most of the discussion around abortion begins with an argument about when life begins. If you think that's an easy question to answer, then you have not explored the issue in any depth! Pro-life folks generally say that life begins at conception. Pro-choice folks are more varied in their responses to the question (Some say that life begins with the viability of the fetus, while others insist that life begins at birth).

In this regard, it is interesting to note that many of the folks from both camps have a fundamentally different view of the question of when life begins in almost any other context. For instance, we all regard the span of a person's lifetime as stretching from the date of their birth to the date of their death. Many of us refer to the baby making his/her entrance into (or appearance in) our world on his/her birthday. On the other hand, most of us refer to the embryo and fetus as a baby throughout a woman's pregnancy (e.g. "We can't hardly wait for the baby to get here!" - As if the little tyke was somehow in transit, "I just felt the baby kick"). Hence, in almost any context other than abortion, it appears that most of us are subconsciously of two minds on the subject of when life begins.

For many of us, the baby's first breath is all important. After all, Scripture informs us that God breathed into Adam's "nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7) In fact, this terminology (breath of life) is used three more times in the book of Genesis (6:17, 7:15 and 7:22); and, in all of those instances, it is clearly used to refer to living things). Likewise, in the book of Job, Elihu declared that "The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life." (Job 33:4) Do these verses imply that life begins when we take that first breath?

When considering this topic, we should also pause to reflect on the nature of human pregnancy. According to the Mayo Clinic, " About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. But the actual number is probably much higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn't even know she's pregnant." They go on to inform us that "Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn't developing normally." (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pregnancy-loss-miscarriage/basics/definition/con-20033827) Hence, we are left to conclude that God has designed a natural mechanism for the termination of some pregnancies where the embryo/fetus/baby has problems. Does that imply that it is ok to terminate some pregnancies?

When does life begin? When does the clock start on us as an individual soul with free will? In attempting to answer these questions from a Biblical perspective, it is interesting to note the words that Mark attributed to Christ at the Passover supper on the eve of his crucifixion. We read: "The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born." (Mark 14:21) Was Christ implying that the birth event is what starts the clock?

What about the penalty that is prescribed by the Mosaic Law for causing a woman to miscarry? We read: "If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her (she has a miscarriage), and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief (harm) follow, then thou shalt give life for life..." (Exodus 21:22-23) If God regarded the child as a living person, wouldn't the Law demand that the offender be stoned to death? Don't these verses imply that it is only when the woman herself dies as a consequence of the miscarriage that the forfeiture of the offending party's life is required? In other words, don't these verses imply that an unborn baby is not placed on the same footing with a living person?

Nevertheless, we do have the instance where God spoke to Jeremiah about "His" plans for the prophet prior to his birth. We read: "Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." (Jeremiah 1:4-5) Likewise, we are informed that the Lord told Rebekah that there were two nations within her womb when she was pregnant with Esau and Jacob. (Genesis 25:23) Does this imply that God regarded these fetuses as living personages? Or does this simply reflect the fact that God "calleth those things which be not as though they were?" (Romans 4:17)

Are the Catholics right about birth control? Do we have any right to interfere with or prevent the production of children? Is it immoral to bring a child into the world without the proper resources to care for it? Is everyone suited to parenthood? Is it moral to bring a child into the world that you know is going to suffer horrible health problems for the entirety of its life? Is a woman obligated to carry a child that is the consequence of a man forcing himself upon her? Are you responsible for someone who decides entirely on their own initiative to murder another person? Isn't each one of us responsible for his/her own sins? (Ezekiel 18:20) Is each one of us responsible for following the dictates of his/her own understanding of God's will and conscience? Or are we responsible for judging each other's behavior by the dictates of our own understanding and conscience?

It seems to me that these are the kinds of questions that we should be asking ourselves relative to this topic. And when we have our answers, maybe we can begin to imagine what God might think about abortion.

In asking ourselves these questions, is it possible that God's view of this subject is a little more complex than our own?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What if the Materialists are right about Consciousness?

In July of this year (2014), Helen Thomson wrote an article for NewScientist entitled "Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain" or, as it originally appeared in print, "Consciousness - we hit its sweet spot." (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762.700-consciousness-onoff-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain.html?page=1#.VBgLzc8tDIU) In the piece, Ms. Thomson reports that a team of scientists at George Washington University in Washington D.C. has successfully turned on and off the consciousness of a patient by stimulating the claustrum (an area deep within the brain that hadn't been stimulated in this fashion heretofore) with electrical impulses. Previously, some scientists had speculated that the brain needed some kind of structure to coordinate our different brain networks, thus "allowing us to perceive our surroundings as one single unifying experience rather than isolated sensory perceptions." Hence, although this phenomena has only been observed in one person (and she cannot be characterized as having a "normal" brain), it does appear that scientists may have found this structure in the patient's claustrum.

What does this mean for the age-old debate on the metaphysical nature of consciousness between dualists and materialists? According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (or IEP), dualists generally believe that there is a non-physical component to consciousness - one that is not related to the physical brain. In similar fashion, the IEP suggests that the materialist position can best be summarized as stating that consciousness is entirely the product of neural activity within the physical brain. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/consciou/) Now it has generally been acknowledged by philosophers that the dualist position lends itself to a supernatural or theistic interpretation of life while the materialist position is more in line with an evolutionary one (Once again, this presumes that a theistic view is incompatible with an evolutionary view).

Hence, as one could argue that this scientific finding regarding the claustrum tends to support the materialist view of consciousness, one might well ask "Is this another nail in the coffin of a theistic interpretation of life?" First, it should be noted that the IEP acknowledges that the association of a theistic or supernatural interpretation with the dualist position is a traditional one. In other words, the materialist position is not inherently incompatible with a theistic or supernatural view.

What if consciousness is entirely the product of neural activity within the physical brain? What would that mean for the concept of a soul or supernatural component to man? What if the "soul" or "spirit" within man has no independent consciousness apart from the physical brain? What if the purpose of this non-physical component of man is merely to record the neural activity of the brain on a more permanent medium? Wouldn't such a view be consistent with the Christian concept of a future resurrection of the dead? And how could materialists exclude these possibilities when so much of the scientific research points to a very complex view of the nature of consciousness?

After all, if God is the source of the evolutionary processes that produced the physical brain, wouldn't that have profound implications for the true nature of the "finished" product? What does the scientifically demonstrable phenomenon of instinct tell us about this topic? Isn't the perpetuation of itself (immortality) the goal of every species on this planet? Can instinct be described as a kind of collective memory or awareness of a species? A memory or awareness that is passed from one generation to another to ensure the survival of the species as a whole? We now know that our awareness of the world around us, along with some of the conscious decisions that we make in the course of our lifetimes (e.g. picking a mate), is influenced by things that are coded in our DNA. Hence, if physical life is "programmed" to pursue immortality, what does that suggest about the nature of God or the supernatural? And what about the fact that humans have the capacity to circumvent their "programming" (a man can decide to marry a woman with narrow hips and a woman can decide to marry a man with weak musculature)? In short, do any of these considerations have any implications for the materialist view of consciousness relative to the concept of a Divine origin for life?

In conclusion, it was not my intention to argue for the dualist or materialist position on consciousness when I sat down to write this piece. I simply wanted to demonstrate that theists do not have to resort to the old "God of the gaps" approach (that God is the answer to everything that is unexplained by science). Locking ourselves into a "God of the gaps" view is not a sensible long-term strategy for dealing with science. After all, scientific discovery is an ongoing and ever expanding process - What happens if science someday explains everything? So, What if the Materialists are right about Consciousness? This writer is merely suggesting that if the materialist view prevails that this does not necessarily exclude the existence of God or an afterlife.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The God of all comfort

There is an old proverb that has been stated in many different ways over the years, but it goes something like this: "Everybody has at least one story inside of them that would break your heart to hear it." Author Frank Warren has used a modified version of this quote in his writings, and he is responsible for another quote that I think is very appropriate for this topic: "Religious people fear hell - Spiritual people have walked thru it." (https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8655.Frank_Warren) On some level, most of us understand that there are many different kinds of hurts in this world; but we have tended to focus on trying to heal the physical hurts for far too long. We can all applaud (and be grateful for) the advances that have been made in medical science within the last fifty years, but what about the hurts and diseases of the soul?

I was touched by some comments that "Byker Bob" made over at Otagosh today. He talked about how some folks have never been able to regain their balance and equilibrium after leaving the Worldwide Church of God (or one of its many splinter groups). As someone who did leave that culture and eventually regained my footing, I completely understand the point that he was making. Sometimes hurts and disappointments run so deep that only a miracle can heal them.

Even so, those kinds of hurts almost always leave deep scars. These scars are not like the physical scars that remind us of some childhood accident or later surgery to remove some part of us that was causing problems or wasn't working properly. No, I'm talking about internal scars - scars on the soul - scars that no one can see.

In times past, I have written about addiction and revealed that I have a nephew who suffers from an addiction to drugs. I have talked about his struggles to free himself from the grips of that addiction, and his continued willingness to surrender himself to this demon. I've talked about the heartache and pain that this has caused for his children - the scars that it has inflicted on their sweet and innocent little souls. I also have a brother who has overcome a drug addiction and built a new life for himself, but who I also know will have to continue to resist the pull back into hell for the rest of his life. And when I think about them, I think about how all of us have our addictions/demons to fight - to struggle against. I realize the absolute truth of my opening quote - that we all carry around these unseen hurts and scars (some of us more than others).

Where is God in the midst of this pain and suffering? Many Christians talk about God as a physical healer, but what about the emotional/spiritual pain/diseases that afflict all of us to one degree or another? What about the Black Dog of Depression (something that I'm trying to outrun every day of my life)? What about the sorrow, isolation and loneliness that many folks experience on a daily basis? Did Jesus Christ suffer for those things too? Is God available to heal those kinds of hurts?

The Apostle Paul clearly made some mistakes in his ministry, and some of his theology is clouded and contradictory; but I think that he nailed this one. I think that he clearly understood that God could heal these kinds of hurts too - through us - through Christ working in us. After being very tough on the saints at Corinth (perhaps too tough - we're not debating that here), he wrote to them: "God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us." (II Corinthians 1:3-7, NLT) If you have suffered with Christ and been comforted by God, would you mind sharing that with someone in your life? They just might need it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

God and Paganism

Many Christians and Atheists love to point to the pagan origins of some of the religious practices of our society. The followers of Herbert Armstrong and the Jehovah's Witnesses underscore the pagan origins of most holidays and forbid their members to participate in those events. Likewise, some Atheists like to underscore the pagan origins of almost all religious practices and use this as exhibit A in their argument that all of those practices are the product of man's imagination. Hence, I think that it is reasonable to ask: What does God think about Paganism? and Does the existence of Pagan practices within the Christian Religion prove that it is a man-made hoax?

In beginning to answer these questions, I believe that it would be instructive for all of us to ask ourselves a few other questions relative to the topic: If God does exist, wouldn't "He" be the God of everyone who has ever lived (whether or not they acknowledged "him" as such)? If so, how can we so casually dismiss such a large and historically important part of humanity (Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, etc.)? Is it appropriate to simply turn our backs on our heritage from these folks? Did God care about them or have any contact with them? Were they all completely cut-off from God and condemned? Does the fact that many of the religious ideas of today can be shown to have their origins in the beliefs and practices of these people somehow discredit or negate those ideas? It seems to me that how we respond to each of these questions will inform our answers to the larger questions asked in the opening paragraph of this article.

First, can we all agree that the Pagan influences on our culture are pervasive? We've already hinted at the impact the Pagans have had on our religious life, but what about other areas? Like it or not, many of our ideas about government and philosophy have their origins in these pagan cultures. The calendar that we currently use (including the names of the days of the weeks and months) has its origins in Pagan deities and practices. Likewise, the Pagans have had a profound effect upon our artistic, musical and architectural tastes. In fact, almost every aspect of the society that we live in could legitimately be said to have been shaped and influenced by the heathen past. Hence, if we are to reject Pagan practices, we are going to have to embark on a cultural revolution that would put Mao's little experiment in China to shame!

Nevertheless, we are talking about religion here - right? Yes, in particular, we are discussing Pagan influences on Christianity. Many Atheists love to point out that things like the symbol of the cross, virgin birth, mother and child, resurrection, angels and demons, story of the flood, heaven and hell, et al. all existed before the Christian era. The obvious implication is that Christianity merely borrowed these concepts from their Pagan predecessors, but is that the case? Do the existence of these concepts among pre-Christian cultures constitute proof that Christianity appropriated them for their own use? Admittedly, this certainly suggests that it is possible that these Pagan concepts were the basis for the later Christian stories; but to say that a cause and effect relationship has been established by their very existence is a bit of a stretch. In a fair evaluation of the evidence, we have to ask: Are there important/significant differences between the Pagan and Christian elements? Is there any other basis for the Christian traditions (i.e. things like the Hebrew Scriptures, actual people and events of the First Century, Divine revelation, etc.)? And, if we rule out any other sources, is it possible that the existence of these artifacts from pre-Christian times is evidence of the fact that God was dealing with these people and inspired some of their traditions? In other words, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

On the other side of this equation, there are many conservative Christians who point to the Christmas holiday as a prime example of the pernicious influence of Paganism on Christianity. It is certainly true that some of our traditions regarding this holiday have Pagan roots: Yule logs (how widespread is this practice today?) which sometimes burned for twelve days (how many folks still observe twelve days of Christmas?), boughs of evergreen, gift giving, feasting, the date and mistletoe. Nevertheless, we can also confidently assert that many of our Christmas traditions belong to the Christian era. After all, we do refer to the holiday as the Christ Mass. Like it or not, there is a nativity story about Christ in the Christian Scriptures. (Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2) Legend has it that Martin Luther observed the starlight through some evergreen trees while walking home one evening and gave rise to the tree that is at the center of most celebrations. The English received this tradition from their Germanic royal family, and we Americans received it from them and our many German immigrants. Santa Claus can be traced back to a person named Nicholas (later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) who lived and worked in what is now Turkey during the Third Century.

In fact, it is truly amazing just how many of our Christmas traditions can be traced to developments of the last two hundred years of our history! For instance, many of our modern notions of Christmas observance date to the publication of some stories by Washington Irving, a poem by Clement Moore (Twas the Night Before Christmas) and a story by Charles Dickens entitled A Christmas Carol. These pieces of literature were introduced in the early to mid portions of the Nineteenth Century! An American diplomat to Mexico named Joel Poinsett introduced to the United States the plant that bears his name in 1828. John Horsley began the tradition of sending Christmas cards in the 1830's in England. The song Jingle Bells made its debut in 1857. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer originated as a story written by Robert May and published by the Montgomery Ward Department Store in 1939. The song White Christmas made its debut in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. So it sure seems to me that very little of our modern observance of Christmas could justly be attributed to the Pagans!

"But what about what Moses said to the Israelites?" my persistent friends on the Right will demand. They will quote: "When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dewellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish form it." (Deuteronomy 12:29-32) A few questions: Who was God addressing in this passage? (the children of Israel with whom "He" had just made a covenant which stipulated certain instructions about their behavior - especially regarding religious observances) Isn't God warning them not to proactively enquire about the religious practices of their predecessors? (Do you honestly think that most modern Americans have any notion about the pagan origins of the things they take for granted?) Do any of our modern Christian observances come close to sacrificing children in fire?

"What about Jeremiah's condemnation of the Christmas tree?" some of them will persist. They will quote: "Hear ye the word which the Lord spake unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (Jeremiah 10:1-4) This is a prime example of lifting a passage out of context and employing it to say something that you want it to say. The truth is that this passage has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas tree! If one actually takes the time to read this scripture in context, then it quickly becomes clear that the author was talking about an idol. (Jeremiah 10:5-15)

Maybe some folks should lighten up on the Romans and Babylonians? After all, if we delve too deeply into this subject of Pagan influences on our current culture, some of us may discover things we wish we hadn't! (For my more serious-minded readers, I'm kidding here). Moreover, I seem to recall a very pertinent question of Paul's to the saints at Rome that could justly be addressed to all of us with regard to this matter: "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" (Romans 14:4)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where was God on September 11, 2001?

After the events of 9/11/2001, many Christians wondered why God would allow such a terrible thing to happen. In comments as a guest on the 700 Club, Reverend Jerry Falwell said: "The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America," he continued, "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Not surprisingly, the host (Reverend Pat Robertson) totally concurred with this perspective. (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics) Likewise, in the most recent issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God, Brian Harris attributed the events of that day to God's warning to Israel that He would "appoint terror over" them if they failed to obey His commandments (Mr. Harris believes that the people of America are the descendants of Ancient Israel). So we have to ask: Were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 a manifestation of God's wrath against the United States for its sins?

We are told that King Solomon once observed: "The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy." (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12) In other words, sometimes things just happen.

In a similar vein, the Gospel of Luke records Jesus Christ's reaction to two tragedies that occurred during his lifetime. We read: "About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. 'Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?' Jesus asked. 'Is that why they suffered? Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God. And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish too.'" (Luke 13:1-5) In other words, bad things happen in this life that don't have anything to do with punishment for sins.

Was God punishing the United States for its sins that day or did a few warped men with evil in their hearts get together and perpetrate the attack? Did God withdraw "his" protection that day?

Consider these facts: It has been estimated that 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center every day, and that another 140,000 people visited it every day! (http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2001/trade.center/tenants1.html) What if the area of the Pentagon where the plane penetrated the building had not been sparsely occupied because of recent renovations? What if the other plane had not gone down in that field in Pennsylvania and had made it back to the Capital or White House? It is truly staggering to think about the potential loss of life that day. It is an awful tragedy that almost 3,000 people died on 9/11/2001, but take just a moment to consider how many people could have died that day. Was God asleep that day? I don't think so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Did Jesus Christ affirm that everything in the Old Testament was the word of God?

In beginning to answer that question, it should be noted that the phrase "word of God" is only used to refer to Scripture a few times in the Bible. Indeed, of the forty-eight times this exact phrase is used in Scripture (KJV), only four of those are in the Old Testament. Of those forty-four instances that it occurs in the New Testament, only one of them is a direct reference to Scripture (Mark 7:13); and that refers to a specific commandment (Mark 7:10). All of the other instances where this phrase is used are references to the message that God gave to John, Christ and the twelve apostles!

The Gospel According to Luke states that "the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness." (Luke 3:2) In this same book, we are informed that the people came to Christ "to hear the word of God." (Luke 5:1) In the book of Acts, we are told that the disciples "spake the word of God with boldness." (Acts 4:31) A little later in the same account, we are informed that "the word of God increased" in the hands of the apostles. (Acts 6:7, 12:24) Later still, we are told that Paul and Barnabas "preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews" at Salamis. (Acts 13:5) Now the Jews were accustomed to hearing the Scriptures read to them every time they gathered in their synagogues, but notice that this scripture makes plain that Paul's and Barnabas' message was the word of God! Following this, we are told that Sergius Paulus "desired to hear the word of God" from Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 13:7) Finally, we are informed that almost the entire city of Antioch came together one Sabbath "to hear the word of God" from Paul's lips. (Acts 13:44) Likewise, Paul told the saints at Thessalonica that they had received the word of God from him. (II Thessalonians 2:13)

The Gospel According to John goes even further. We read there: "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:1, 14) Notice that John says that Jesus Christ was/is the personification of the word of God. He is also referred to as the "Word of God" in the book of Revelation. (Revelation 19:13)

In this same vein, Christ claimed that he was "greater" than the temple (Matthew 12:6), Jonah (12:41), Solomon (12:42), Jacob (John 4:12-14) and Abraham (John 8:53-58). In the book of Hebrews, we are told that Christ was superior to Moses. (Hebrews 3:1-6)

Moreover, Christ clearly believed that he had the authority to modify and change the things in Scripture that had been attributed to Moses. Notice how Christ amended many of these teachings with the preface "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time..." (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44) In fact, his contradiction of Moses' teaching on the subject of divorce is made even more apparent in the account of his confrontation about this by the Pharisees. (Matthew 19:3-9) After stating that God did not intend for His people to divorce, the Pharisees asked him "Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" (verse 7) Notice Christ's reply: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so." (verse 8) In other words, Moses was wrong!

"Isn't Christ affirming the Genesis account of creation here by stating 'that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female'?" Is he? Is Christ talking about the Genesis account of creation or the principles behind God's view on divorce? Isn't he affirming here that God is the Creator, and the One who designed a man and a woman to function as husband and wife? In the final analysis, is Christ really affirming anything about the mechanics of how they were created?

To be sure, Christ and his disciples constantly referred to stories in the Old Testament and quoted those Scriptures in their messages to the people of the First Century; but I don't recall a single instance where they passed judgment on the scientific or historical veracity of the material they were using. "Didn't their use of the material imply that they accepted it as fact?" Did it? Or were they using stories and writings that the people were familiar with to make their own points about what God expected of them and wanted for them? Do you think that all of the men who wrote those prophecies about Christ and his ministry expected them to be interpreted and fulfilled in the manner that Jesus and his disciples used them? In short, was Christ confirming what others had written or was he using their writings to preach a message about salvation through him? Ultimately, I guess we all have to answer these questions to our own satisfaction.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Does God motivate all evangelistic zeal?

Does the zeal to convert others to our way of thinking or advocate for a particular cause always have a Divine origin? Is it possible that other motivations exist that might better explain some of our evangelistic zeal? It seems to me that sometimes we are much too quick to ascribe noble or Divine origins/inspiration to our motivations for trying to impress our views on others.

To be sure, we do read in Scripture that Christ told his followers to "go and make disciples of all the nations." (Matthew 28:19) But is that always the motivation behind Christian evangelical efforts? Were Christ's instructions to his disciples the motivating force behind the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades of the Middle Ages? Was that the motivation behind all of the persecutions of European Jews by Christians? Was that what inspired the Smithfield Fires and the Salem Witch Trials? And how do we explain the evangelical zeal of Atheists to promote their ideas?

Is it possible that ego could be behind some of this evangelical zeal? Could some of this fervor be rooted in our own insecurity about what we believe? Are we sometimes attempting to reinforce our own beliefs by encouraging others to reach the same conclusions that we have reached? Are we afraid of standing alone - being the only one who believes something?

Do we really just want to save someone from Hell or the Lake of Fire? Do we really only want to rescue someone from error, delusion or there own stupidity?

A few days ago I had the opportunity to see the movie God's Not Dead. In the movie, a young college student feels compelled to challenge his atheistic Philosophy professor's assertion that God does not exist. When asked about why he felt compelled to carry out this challenge, the young man responds that he feels the need to defend God. Does God need defending? Why would a college professor feel the need to attack the concept of God? In short, were either of the central characters motivated exclusively by noble or Divine reasons for doing what they did?

Maybe a little self-reflection is in order? Why do we feel the need to defend or advance our views? Why are we so afraid/concerned about views that differ from our own? Is my acceptance or rejection of your views of paramount importance? In the grand scheme of things, does it have any significance or importance? What do you think?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Does God really care about our conclusions regarding him/her/it?

Down through the ages, many folks have conceived of God as a jealous, angry and vindictive Deity. They believe that God demands acknowledgment, recognition and worship from everyone; but is such a view consistent with logic? Would a being of supreme intelligence, authority and power need our approval or praise? In short, does it make sense that the Creator of the universe would demand such recognition from the inferior entities who owe their very existence to him/her/it? Is God's ego so fragile that it needs continual reinforcement from us?

Doesn't it make more sense to imagine a God that is self-assured? What did God do before we existed to acknowledge and praise him/her/it? Is it reasonable to suppose that our belief or disbelief affects God's existence or somehow detracts from his/her/its enjoyment of that existence? If God doesn't want us to contemplate "His" existence and character, why hasn't "He" fully revealed "Himself" to everyone? Is it possible that God derives some pleasure and satisfaction from our contemplation of the Divine? Is it possible that God encourages and enjoys our exploration, cogitation and learning? If there is in fact a God, isn't it reasonable to suppose that our desire to explore, think and learn originated in him/her/it?

How does an individual determination that there is no God affect him? "Well, didn't the author of Hebrews say that those who come to God must believe that 'He' exists, and that 'He' is a 'rewarder' of those who diligently seek him." (Hebrews 11:6) Yes, but does that apply to those who don't come to him? "Well, then they're lost!" Are they? Is it reasonable to imagine that a God of love and mercy would condemn someone who has never known him? Would that be a God worthy of anyone's worship or praise? In fact, doesn't the Bible state that it is God's decision as to when "He" chooses to reveal himself to some individual? (John 6:44) Didn't James suggest that each one of us is responsible for what he/she knows? (James 4:17)

One more thing, how can we say that an imperfect or false understanding of God is superior to disbelief in God? If we imagine God to be something that "He" is not, how is that better than having no conception of God? Isn't it more plausible to believe that God will someday reveal him/her/itself to everyone? In the end, how could a just God condemn someone for something that is "His" responsibility?

By the way, I'm not advocating that we stop discussing/debating this topic - How would that further learning and understanding?However, maybe we should refrain from judging each other's views on the subject of God? (That might even sound Biblical) And for those of us who believe in God, maybe we should trust in him/her/it for the outcome? What do you think?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Let my people go!

In looking at the fallacious reasoning known as the False Dilemma, it occurred to me how prevalent this type of reasoning has become vis-à-vis the Bible. Almost everything has been reduced to acceptance or rejection - there is rarely any room for a middle ground or a more nuanced attitude toward these writings. The story of Israel's exodus from Egypt is a case in point.

Looking over my notes from Dr. Jacob Wright's The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future, it is evident that the exodus narrative is not supported by the archeological evidence or contemporary Egyptian sources. So it didn't happen - right? That is the obvious and easy conclusion, but I believe a closer look at all of the available evidence may suggest something more profound about this story.

As most students of history know, myths and legends are often founded on some kernel of truth or are suggestive of an actual historical truth that has faded from the collective memory and has been enveloped by the foggy mists of an oral tradition. For instance, many historians have concluded that there may have actually been a great warrior chieftain who fought against the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon and inspired the legends about King Arthur.

How does this apply to the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt? Let's consider the historical and archeological evidence for just a moment. We know that Egypt dominated the Levant in the Second Millennium BCE. We know that the pharaohs of the New Kingdom Period taxed the produce and labor of the region and used governors and surrogates to protect their interests and exert administrative control over the region. We also know that Egypt was not as interested in the region known as the hill country (the area where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would later form). Finally, we know that Egypt declined toward the end of this period due to climate change, civil unrest and the invasion of the sea peoples. This eventually led to the withdrawal of Egypt from the Levant and the collapse of their hegemony over the region (the very thing that permitted the formation of the two kingdoms).

What if the exodus story has its origins in some collective memory of this period of Egyptian domination? Could later generations have regarded this time of Egyptian domination as a time of slavery or servitude to pharaoh? Is it plausible to suggest that some leader or leaders arose after the collapse of Egyptian control who led the people out of this darkness? Scholars have not been able to pinpoint the Land of Goshen in Egypt (the place where the Israelites were said to live in the Scriptural accounts), but there is a mention of a Land of Goshen in the accounts of Joshua's conquest of the Promised Land. (Joshua 10:41, 11:16-17 and 15:51) Could the memory of wandering in the wilderness be the remnants of memories regarding the period of turmoil and tribal warfare that followed Egyptian withdrawal from the region? Is it possible that Egypt sent out an army or armies that failed to reestablish their hegemony over the region (Pharaoh and his army's pursuit of the children of Israel to bring them back to Egypt)?

Of course, this is all speculative; but I am not the only one who has engaged in such speculation. In Stephen C. Russell's Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan-Israelite and Judahite Portrayals, he argues from the collective work of the textual critics that there exists within these writings compelling evidence to suggest how the tradition of the exodus developed among these groups. This is not to suggest that these stories were not combined, modified and embellished by later writers - we know that they were. Nevertheless, it does make the case that this legend/myth/story was not created out of thin air - that it did have some basis in the reality of what the Israelites had actually experienced in their distant past - prior to the establishment and subsequent fall of the two kingdoms.

Hence, when we look a little closer at the available evidence, can we see how later generations of Israelites might have regarded themselves as having been delivered from slavery in Egypt in the distant past? Is it unreasonable to assume that these people would attribute their deliverance from the oppression of the Egyptians to YHWH? Was Moses wholly the creation of post exilic priests and scribes or was there some historical figure or figures (like the stories about Arthur) that inspired the character who became Moses? In short, does the story of the exodus point to a profound truth about the origins of Israel that the years and oral traditions have obscured and made fantastic? What do you think?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Fallacious Arguments of Atheists and Fundamentalists: Appeal to Authority and Circular Reasoning (Part 3)

The author of this series would be remiss to ignore the propensity of both groups to Appeal to Authority in their arguments with each other about the Bible and God's existence. According to The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an Appeal to Authority is defined in these terms: "Often we add strength to our arguments by referring to respected sources or authorities and explaining their positions on the issues we’re discussing. If, however, we try to get readers to agree with us simply by impressing them with a famous name or by appealing to a supposed authority who really isn’t much of an expert, we commit the fallacy of appeal to authority." How does this apply to Atheists and Fundamentalists?

We will begin with the more apparent use of this fallacious argument: The one employed by Fundamentalists. They use the Bible to support their belief in the existence of God and the authority of the Bible. Fundamentalists are fond of quoting "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." (Psalm 53:1) Likewise, they love to trot out Paul's statement to Timothy that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..." (II Timothy 3:16) It should also be noted that an appeal to the authority that you are attempting to establish is a type of Circular Reasoning (A is true/false because of B. B is true/false because of A).

For many Atheists, the use of an Appeal to Authority is less apparent and more convoluted than in the previous case. After all, the Atheist is coming at this from the opposite direction. They use the Bible to discredit the Bible. They point out the factual and historical errors, moral and narrative inconsistencies and errors in logic and reasoning to make their argument that the Bible should be rejected in toto. But the greater irony vis-à-vis the Atheist position is that they turn around and use the source/authority that they have just discredited to discredit the Judeo-Christian conception of God! They are quick to appeal to those same Scriptures to demonstrate that the God of the Bible is a homophobic, homicidal, immoral, tyrannical, vindictive and slavery affirming monster.

Maybe both sides should leave the Bible out of their arguments? Right, we all know that will NEVER happen! Neither side seems to be able to recognize their use of fallacious reasoning. They see it in each other, but not in themselves.

Yes, Fundamentalists and Atheists are very different from each other - it is legitimate to characterize them as being polar opposites philosophically. However, it is very clear to this blogger that both sides employ fallacious arguments to advance their viewpoints/agendas. What do you think?