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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

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, March 31, 2015

Religious Freedom vs. Intolerance: Is the State of Indiana on God's Side?

The legislature of the State of Indiana recently passed (and the governor has signed) what has been referred to as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Some of the supporters of the legislation have stated that it will protect Christian business owners from being compelled to do business with (or provide their services to) homosexuals. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, however, refused to answer ABC's George Stephanopoulos' repeated question about whether or not the new law would allow a Christian florist in Indiana to discriminate against a gay couple seeking his/her services. When pressed, the governor insisted that tolerance was a two-way street, and that he was merely seeking to protect the religious liberties of the citizens of his state.

Proponents of the legislation have been quick to point out that President Clinton signed a federal version of this legislation in 1993, and that President Obama supported an Illinois version of it as a state senator in 1998. However, in asserting this fact, they conveniently fail to mention a few important qualifiers: 1) American public attitudes toward homosexuals have changed dramatically since the 1990s (including those of the two presidents cited), 2) The Supreme Court struck down the provision of the federal law that made it applicable to the states (City of Boerne v. Flores - that's why states began passing their own versions of the law), and 3) The language of the federal law is substantially different from the Indiana law in addressing exactly who is protected under its provisions (Federal: "A person whose religious exercise has been substantially burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government." Indiana: "As used in this chapter, 'person' includes the following: (1) An individual. (2) An organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized and operated primarily for religious purposes. (3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that: (A) may sue and be sued; and (B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes." (the Mitt Romney argument that businesses and corporations are people too and should be regarded as having the same rights as individuals).

I would agree with Governor Pence that tolerance is a two-way street. A person is entitled to believe whatever they want to believe. No matter how offensive it may be to me or you, a person has the right to regard a homosexual as a sinner and an abomination. If their religious beliefs dictate that he/she should not associate with a gay person, they are certainly entitled not to associate with a gay person under our system. However, it has generally been recognized that any rights that we have can be curtailed or limited when they substantially interfere with or negate the rights of others (especially when the government is viewed as having a compelling interest in promulgating a single standard for everyone). In this respect, if a person chooses to form a business, incorporate or offer their services to the public, it has generally been understood that he/she is obligated to accommodate anyone who chooses to use their products and/or services (e.g. a hotel in Alabama is not allowed to refuse accommodations to an interracial couple).

As an individual, you are certainly entitled to believe that "God separated the races for a reason, and that He doesn't want the races to mingle with each other and procreate." Nevertheless, as a nation, we have determined that you do not have a right to refuse your products or services to a person of another race. In other words, you are free to believe whatever you want to believe and refrain from inviting whomever you don't like into your own home; but you are not free to exclude someone from your public place of business (or refuse to provide them with services offered to the public at large). You are entitled to believe that God permits polygamy, but you are not entitled to have more than one husband or wife at a time under current U.S. law. You are entitled to believe that the first chapter of Genesis adequately explains the existence of the universe and life on this planet, but you are not permitted to impose that understanding on society at large. You are entitled to believe that participating in or supporting warfare is wrong, but you are still obligated under U.S. law to pay your taxes (which are then used to support the U.S. military and any war those forces may be engaged in at the time). You are compelled by both secular and Divine law to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's!

Think about it: The Bible teaches that homosexuals should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13). You are entitled to believe that this is God's will, but if you go out into the square and start stoning a gay person you will quickly be placed under arrest and thrown into jail. Moreover, if you happen to kill the person in question and are convicted of the crime, you may be subject to execution at the hands of the government. Once again, you are allowed to believe whatever you want to believe; but you are not allowed to impose your beliefs on others - you are not allowed to do whatever you want to do. Don't like that? Go live at the South Pole!

When humans choose to live together, they have to respect and tolerate each other's differences or chaos would ensue. You don't have to like me, but you aren't permitted to throw a stone at me when we pass each other on the street. If you feel very strongly that God doesn't want you to bake a cake for a gay wedding, then maybe you should consider not offering your baking services to the public marketplace? The gay person could go to a different baker (hopefully there would be a gay baker or one who was at least friendly to gay people within the community); but what if there wasn't another baker to go to? How would you feel about a baker who refused to serve Atheists or Protestants?

Tolerance involves a willingness to accept the fact that everyone doesn't see things in the same way that you do - that doesn't mean that you have to change the way you see things. It does, however, imply respect for differences and a commitment to refrain from causing harm or suffering to those who happen to disagree with you. I've noticed that the rain still falls on nations that aren't Christian. I've noticed that God still permits Atheists to breathe the same air that Christians breathe. I guess it's a good thing that God's a little more tolerant than we are?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Scientists and Theists: We want an explanation for everything!

I think that it is safe to say that the majority view of both scientists and theists is to accept the "fact" that an unbridgeable gulf exists between the two communities. In fact, both communities often describe their relative positions on the "great questions of life" as being in polar opposition to each other. It is, however, apparent to me that both communities are motivated by the same desire: They want an explanation for everything.

In his 2003 article for Nova entitled "A Theory of Everything?" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/theory-of-everything.html), Brian Greene (Professor of Theoretical Physics at Columbia University) wrote: "For the first time in the history of physics we therefore have a framework with the capacity to explain every fundamental feature upon which the universe is constructed. For this reason string theory is sometimes described as possibly being the 'theory of everything' (T.O.E.) or the 'ultimate' or 'final' theory. These grandiose descriptive terms are meant to signify the deepest possible theory of physics—a theory that underlies all others, one that does not require or even allow for a deeper explanatory base."

Dr. Greene concluded his article with a broader nod to the greater scientific community. He wrote: "The universe is such a wonderfully rich and complex place that the discovery of the final theory, in the sense we are describing here, would not spell the end of science. Quite the contrary: The discovery of the T.O.E.—the ultimate explanation of the universe at its most microscopic level, a theory that does not rely on any deeper explanation—would provide the firmest foundation on which to build our understanding of the world. Its discovery would mark a beginning, not an end. The ultimate theory would provide an unshakable pillar of coherence forever assuring us that the universe is a comprehensible place."

Other physicists/cosmologists have spoken/written extensively about such a theory. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking spoke in terms of an ultimate explanation for the universe in his 2002 book entitled The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe (New Millennium Press). Likewise, in his book published in 2014 (Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality) (Alfred A. Knopf), Max Tegmark wrote: "Assuming that an external reality exists, physics theories aim to describe how it works. Our most successful theories, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics, describe only parts of this reality: gravity, for instance, or the behavior of subatomic particles. In contrast, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics is a theory of everything - a complete description of reality."

For the majority of Christian Theists, this explanation is found in two scriptures: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1, NLT) and "In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and noting was created except through him." (John 1:1-3, NLT) In this view, God is the explanation for everything.

Although both sides ostensibly want the same thing (i.e. an explanation for everything), I think that both sides will continue to fall short of their expectations in this regard until they are ready to acknowledge each other. Many Christians regard science as the natural enemy of their beliefs and as being either completely unnecessary or at least secondary in explaining the world around them. What's wrong with acknowledging that Newtonian Physics, Quantum Mechanics and things like String Theory and the Theory of Evolution contribute to our understanding of God's modus operandi? Likewise, many scientists want an explanation that doesn't include God - that makes God unnecessary to understanding all of this. Why is the refusal to acknowledge the possibility of an underlying metaphysical component to these concepts hailed as superior wisdom on the scientific side? It seems to me that both sides are destined to be frustrated in their efforts to arrive at a universally recognized explanation for everything until they confront the FALSE DILEMMA which they've both created. Is it possible that folks in both camps can't see the forest for the trees? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Our God is going to be kicking ass and taking names!

"Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle...And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth." --Zechariah 14:3, 12

"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war...And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh." --Revelation 19:11, 21

"What a DIVINE RETRIBUTION against armies that will fight against Christ! What a demonstration of the Divine Power with which the glorified Christ will rule all nations! REBELLION against God's LAW and God's RULE must, and speedily will be put down!" --The Wonderful World Tomorrow: What It Will Be Like by Herbert W. and Garner Ted Armstrong (1973)

"And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works...And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." --Revelation 20:12, 15

Those who are familiar with the Armstrong Church of God culture can probably remember a sermon or two where the speaker would work himself up almost to the point of orgasm describing just how horrible God's wrath was going to be when Christ returned to this earth. There was a gleam in their eyes as they described God's justice, and how wicked mankind will finally get his just deserts. I remember Herbert Armstrong thundering from his desk: "This world is rotten, it's corrupt, it's damnable; and it's going to go!" Wiped out by Divine retribution. Of course, all of this was based on a very literal interpretation of the prophecies being quoted. There could be no doubt that God intended a real blood bath, and it was absolutely certain that it was going to happen in the near future.

For the sake of argument, let's say they were right about that literal interpretation of these passages. They were still wrong! It is now clear to me that they made the same mistake that the prophet Jonah made (along with many others). They had their own notions about fairness - about what was just and what was not just. However, unlike Jonah, they projected their own anger and thirst for vengeance onto God. Jonah ran away from his assignment to prophesy against Nineveh; because he knew that God was gracious, merciful, slow to anger and prone to great kindness. (Jonah 4:2) In other words, he knew that God wouldn't do all of the horrible things which he had prophesied against the citizens of Nineveh if they repented of their sins. In modern language, "God doesn't have enough backbone - He's too soft on these sinners - He's too quick to forgive - Kill them God! Give those miserable b-st-rds what they deserve!"

Hmmm, maybe it's a very good thing that "His" thoughts are not our thoughts, and "His" ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8) What do you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yes, sir! Right away, sir! Anything you say, sir!

I came out of a religious culture that stressed obedience to God and "His" ministers - unquestioning obedience that was to be performed without thought, justification or resort to "human reasoning." They loved to quote scriptures like Deuteronomy 27:10 - "Thou shalt therefore obey the voice of the LORD thy God, and do his commandments and his statutes, which I command thee this day." They also liked Deuteronomy 5:32 - "Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left." They loved to talk about Abraham's unquestioning obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac when God demanded that of him. And they really liked Hebrews 13:7 - "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you." BUT is that the kind of mindless obedience that God wants and/or expects from us?

We'll first let's look at the scientific evidence in our attempt to answer this question. When we look at what science has been able to tell us about the world in which we live, it quickly becomes apparent that God (or Nature if you prefer) has allowed things to evolve or develop over time. In making this observation, it should be noted that I'm not suggesting a random or haphazard sequence of events. I'm merely suggesting that God/Nature has set laws and processes in motion that as far as we know have not required constant supervision or intervention from Him/Her/It. This implies to me that God has allowed at least some degree of independence or freedom of action to exist or operate within "His" creation.

Likewise, as humans, we see that we have this extraordinary ability to reason, make decisions and create new things. If God is indeed the source of this ability, isn't it reasonable to conclude that "He" gave us such an ability to use? Think about it. Why would God/Nature make us (or allow us to be) self-aware, reasoning creatures if these abilities did not serve some purpose? Does the ability to think and reason give us some advantage over the other life forms on this planet? I know - sometimes we all wonder about that one; but doesn't everything that science has taught us about ourselves and the world we inhabit suggest that this ability is an advantage that our species has exploited (admittedly without much restraint at times). These observations also raise some rather profound questions about the way God operates relative to us, and what "He" may or may not expect from us.

Why are humans so inquisitive? Why do we seek answers to these questions? Why do we explore the world around us and attempt to study the universe that surrounds us? More importantly for our discussion, why didn't God supply us with all of the answers? Did God/Nature design us to seek answers? Does God want us to make choices and decisions? Does God want us to learn things for ourselves? Does learning require process and time? Does learning involve trial and error? Does personal experience and observation play any role in the process? What if God had handed us everything on a silver platter? Would our ancestors have even understood what they had been given? Is a lecture the only or most effective way to learn something?

Now let's return to the scriptural evidence relative to our question. Is there anything in Scripture to suggest that God has designed us to have free moral agency? Is there anything in Scripture to suggest that God designed us to seek "Him"? Is there anything in Scripture to suggest that God wants us to learn about "Him" and grow in grace and knowledge? Is there anything in Scripture to indicate that God wants us to make up our own minds about accepting "Him" and "His" salvation? Is there anything in Scripture that implies humans can learn from past mistakes and make corrections in their behavior? Is there anything in Scripture that suggests that it is possible for humans to be deceived? Is there anything in Scripture that indicates that God has ever had to "reveal" something to someone or teach people about "His" ways? Is there anything in Scripture that indicates that a good example is a better teaching tool than a lecture? Is there anything in the Bible to suggest that God didn't want "His" people to impose their authority on each other? Finally, is there anything in Scripture that states that each and every one of us will be required to give account for his/her personal behavior and decisions?

Brethren, if we look at all of the evidence, I think that most of us would have to conclude that God does not want mindless robots. The totality of the evidence suggests to me that God wants something more from us. What do you think?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Word of God

"The Word of God We believe that Scripture, both the Old and New Testament is God's revelation..." --United Church of God, http://www.ucg.org/fundamental-beliefs-info/
"The Living Church of God bases its beliefs on the Holy Bible, the inspired Word of God." --Living Church of God, https://www.lcg.org/statement-of-beliefs.shtml
"The Philadelphia Church of God believes and teaches the Bible is the full Word of God..." --Philadelphia Church of God, https://www.pcog.org/about/pcg-beliefs
"The whole Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God..." --Church of God International, http://cgi.org/about/

Like many of the folks in other Christian denominations/organizations, Armstrongites underscore their belief that the Bible is The Word of God (as evidenced by the above quotes); but what does the Bible itself say about what constitutes the Word of God?

Interestingly, the terms "word of the Lord" and "word of God" are used in both the Old and New Testament to denote a spoken or orally delivered message as opposed to anything written down on a scroll or book. Here are just a few of the many examples that demonstrate the truth of this assertion (King James Version throughout):

"Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him." (I Samuel 3:7) Strange, surely he would have been exposed to the written works of Moses and Joshua under Eli's tutelage?

"Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying..." (I Samuel 15:10)

"And it came to pass that night, that the word of the LORD came unto Nathan, saying..." (II Samuel 7:4)

"For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying..." (II Samuel 24:11)

"And the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying..." (I Kings 6:11)

"And, behold, there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of the LORD unto Bethel: and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. And he cried against the altar in the word of the LORD..." (I Kings 13:1-2)

"Then the word of the LORD came to Jehu the son of Hanani against Baasha, saying..." (I Kings 16:1)

"And the word of the LORD came unto him (Elijah), saying..." (I Kings 17:2)

"And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in thy mouth is truth." (I Kings 17:24)

"And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, Hear the word of the LORD..." (II Kings 20:16)

"Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken." (II Kings 20:19)

"Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness." (Luke 3:2)

"And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret..." (Luke 5:1)

"And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness." (Acts 4:31)

"And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister." (Acts 13:5)

"Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God." (Acts 13:7)

"And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God." (Acts 13:44)

"Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles." (Acts 13:46)

In this connection, it is interesting to note that the "Great Commission" was envisioned as a message that was to be delivered orally. (Matthew 28:19-20) It is important to remember that there wasn't any New Testament available to the early church. "It was necessary for the message to be delivered orally because many of those people couldn't read or write," my conservative friends will protest. Hmmmm, then how did this stuff eventually get committed to writing? Sorry folks, the Bible itself suggests a very different understanding of what does and does not constitute the Word of the Lord or Word of God!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Could God have other children besides us?

NASA reports that our solar system has "water, water, everywhere!" Not too long ago, we all thought that the earth was unique in this respect. However, in the last few months we have seen strong evidence that water exists on Mars, Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede. Moreover, we have learned that some of these orbs may host vast liquid oceans under their crusts.

Does water mean life? Not necessarily, but it does make life on them a possibility. What does that mean for God and us? If there is so much water within our own solar system, doesn't that suggest that other systems could also contain water? What if there are other worlds with living organisms? What if we're not alone?

I can't find any Scripture in the Bible that explicitly states that this planet hosts the only life in the universe. Could God have other children besides us? If "He" does, does that make you jealous? My guess is that it would make a lot of people very uncomfortable. Many of us have a hard time imagining God caring about any of the other organisms on this planet - let alone caring for any life outside of our world! If such organisms exist, would that diminish the importance of life on this planet? If intelligent life exists somewhere else in the universe, does that in any way negate or cheapen our status? Is God great enough to keep track of folks on other planets and provide for their spiritual salvation?

I believe that God is big enough to handle any life that might exist in the vast out there. I don't believe that there are any limits on God's capacity to create and sustain children wherever He/She/It decides to do so. And if we ever do find life out there (or those little green men show up on our doorstep), I can assure you that it won't shake my faith in God or cause me to reject Christianity. What about you?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

God, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Americans

I read the news of Israel's election results this morning with some dismay. It appears that Netanyahu's Likud Party has garnered the largest block of seats in the Knesset. Although Netanyahu still has to form a coalition government, most of the post election analysis is that he will do just that. In my opinion, the only folks who greeted this news with cheer were the folks on the Right within Israel and the United States - just about everyone else will be frowning this morning.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the most polarizing individuals to have ever served as Prime Minister of Israel. He has single-handedly turned support for Israel into a partisan issue within the United States and alienated the Obama Administration. Moreover, his last-minute declaration that the Palestinians would never have a state as long as he serves as prime minister has effectively ended what little hope existed for peace in that troubled region.

Although Netanyahu's actions and statements have troubled me for some time, I cannot say with a straight face that I am shocked by him or the results of this election. The Israeli Prime Minister and his supporters are the heirs and chief promulgators of a very old idea: God loves the Jews more than He does anyone else on this planet!

Any serious student of the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible understands that the Jewish people have always thought of themselves as God's chosen people. As the descendants of Abraham (and heirs of the promises which God made to him), they believe that God favors them above all other people on this planet. Their historical misfortunes have always been attributed to God's disfavor with their behavior (their many individual and national sins and rebellions against Him). In the United States, many conservative or Fundamentalist Christians have swallowed these notions hook, line and sinker (an old fishing analogy).

There should, however, be one glaring problem with the acceptance and support of such notions by Christians: The founder of their religion (Jesus Christ) refuted such an understanding. Jesus Christ (himself a Jew) explained to the Jews of his day that God had chosen them to reveal the One True God to the rest of the world and to serve as an example to them of the proper way to live - NOT because they were somehow better than everybody else or that God loved them more (Luke 13:22-30 , John 8:25-59, et al.). The Gospel According to Matthew informs us that John the Baptist told the Jewish leaders prior to the commencement of Christ's ministry "think not to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham to our father:' for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." The Apostle Paul underscored the same message in his letter to the Christians of Rome and Galatia (Romans 2:28-29 and Galatians 3:28-29).

It is somewhat ironic that a people who have placed so much emphasis on their physical ancestry (the Jews) have ignored much of the contributions of modern genetic testing to our understanding of the human family tree. DNA testing has conclusively demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of the people living in the Middle East are closely related to each other, and many of them derive from the same male ancestor. Indeed, the testing of my own autosomal DNA has shown that I have a small percentage of Middle Eastern ancestry. Interestingly, most of the folks who do this testing describe these results as reflecting Palestinian, Bedouin, Bedouin South, Druze, Jewish or Mozabite heritage (in other words, they can't pinpoint which group you belong to from the autosomal testing). Oh my, do you mean to tell me that Palestinians and Bedouins are Abraham's children too?

The Apostle Peter is reported to have said that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). Maybe it's time for the Prime Minister of Israel to get down off of his high horse and attempt to start fulfilling the true meaning of his people's calling? Do you think that God would disapprove if we all tried just a little bit harder to love each other and get along with our brothers and sisters?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

God and Pornography

Banned by HWA! Books, News and Observations About Armstrongism and the Churches of God recently featured a post entitled What was Rod Meredith Thinking???? (http://armstrongismlibrary.blogspot.com/2015/03/what-was-rod-meredith-thinking.html). The piece alleges that this former Worldwide Church of God Evangelist and current Presiding Evangelist of the Living Church of God has an unhealthy interest in pornography. Although I am generally leery of the process of evaluating the personal moral behavior of others, I can see some justification for doing so for someone who claims spiritual authority over others.

From a scriptural perspective, it is clearly wrong to engage in sexual fantasy when one is committed to another in marriage (Matthew 5:28). I can also see that anything that turns into a preoccupation or obsession could be said to be interfering with one's responsibility to love God and your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Finally, it is clearly wrong to condemn a behavior in others which is currently a problem in your own life (Luke 6:42 and Matthew 23:4). Anyone who has ever read the gospel accounts of his life knows that Christ was no fan of hypocrisy. Hence, my own post is not meant to defend or excuse the alleged behavior of the person referenced in the original article. Nevertheless, the question does arise: Is pornography inherently wrong/evil? (Is it a sin?)

According to Webster's and the Online Etymology Dictionary, our English word pornography is derived from the Greek components porne (prostitute) and graphia (indicating an illustration or hand-drawn picture). Indeed, the Greek word translated as "fornication" in the KJV of the New Testament is porneia, and it is suggestive of any illicit sexual act (http://www.blueletterbible.org). Hence, the etymology of the English word pornography is indicative of a practice that has been regarded as somehow wrong or shameful for a very long time.

Even so, if we are appealing to Scripture as our guide, we must acknowledge that it was man who attached shamefulness and sinfulness to his naked body (Genesis 3:6-10). In the story of the formation/creation of the human form, we are told that as YHWH surveyed his handiwork "He" pronounced the finished product as being "very good" (Genesis 1:26-31). Which, incidentally, makes sense if we were indeed fashioned in the form and likeness of Almighty God!

In 2013, I wrote a piece for The Journal about human sexuality. In that article, I said that all of the scriptural evidence taken together suggested that YHWH evaluated sexual behavior based on the following criteria: "Does the behavior bring joy and happiness to both parties? Does the behavior harm anyone? Is the behavior the product of two consenting equals?" If my thesis was correct in this regard, we can readily see that engaging in the viewing of pornography clearly has the potential for providing a NO answer to one or all of those questions (Is obsession/addiction ever the source of happiness? How were the people being portrayed in the pornography treated? Did they willingly engage in the practice? (I'm thinking here of human trafficking) Were they forced to perform? Did they do it for the money?).

Nevertheless, one can also imagine circumstances where the answers to all of those questions could be YES. Are private pictures of nude spouses inappropriate? Is a picture or drawing of you and your spouse engaged in a sex act shameful or dirty? Was the sex act itself designed by YHWH? If so, doesn't that make it good and wholesome? To be sure, anything that is good and wholesome has the potential to be perverted and twisted; but do you see the point that I'm driving at: There is nothing inherently wrong with the behavior! What if two people are not committed to anyone else in marriage? Does that mean that they are not allowed to see a naked body or fantasize about someone else in the same circumstances? By the way, if the traditional Christian view of this subject is correct, then we all may need to cover up those mirrors in our bathrooms!

Just for the record, this piece was in no way intended to legitimize the viewing of pornography. If the headline to any follow up or commentary on this piece is "Miller Jones/Lonnie Hendrix endorses the viewing of pornography," then the individual writing the piece wasn't paying attention. My intent was to show that blanket condemnations of anything or anyone are rarely (if ever) smart, helpful or right. What do you think?

Monday, March 16, 2015

What do mass extinction events tell us about God and life?

The Dino 101 class offered by Coursera (of which I've been a student) has also underscored the fact that the earth has undergone a number of Mass Extinction Events (MEEs). BBC Nature (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/extinction_events) does a good job of summarizing these events, but I would encourage my readers to look beyond the statistics recorded below and try to imagine what a catastrophic impact these events had on all of the life on this planet (even the organisms that survived them):

Ordovician-Silurian MEE: Killed much of the Earth's sea life.

Devonian MEE: Devastated shallow sea life and the Earth's reefs.

Permian MEE: The greatest extinction event in the history of the Earth. It has been estimated that up to 96% of all species on this planet disappeared.

Triassic-Jurassic MEE: The event that killed off the dinosaurs' competition and led to their dominance of the Jurassic Period.

K/T MEE: Responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and much of the Earth's flora.

There is still much debate within the scientific community about what caused these events. Volcanic activity, climate change and meteorite impacts have all been postulated as causes. Whatever the truth of the matter, these catastrophes provoke some rather profound questions about the nature of God and the life that currently inhabits this planet.

Here are a few of the questions that came to my mind in considering these events (you could probably think of a few more):

Why would God allow such events to happen?
Doesn't the fact that they occurred suggest that God caused or at the very least permitted them to happen?
How could a loving God permit suffering and death on such a scale?
Could God have devised a more humane way of guiding the development of life on this planet?
Why would God design a universe where such disasters were possible?
Is suffering and death always a bad/evil thing?
Do these events prove that there is no rhyme or reason to the course of cosmic history?
Would the current life forms extant on this planet have been possible without these events?
If all of the organisms now living are descendants of those earlier life forms, does that mean that some part of them has survived?
What do these events tell us about the tenacity of life?
What do these events portend for our own future?
Were all of these events designed to arrive at the world that we now inhabit or is God and nature still working in the direction of some other kind of world?
If all of these events were random and the consequence of chance, what is the probability that a reasoning self-aware being would be inputting these questions onto his computer and posting them on something known as the world wide web?

Scientists know that these events happened over vast expanses of time that are barely comprehensible to us, but Scripture indicates that time is a created thing which does not have the same meaning for the Creator that it does for us. Scripture also informs us that YHWH's thoughts are not like our thoughts. Is it possible that we can't see the forest for the trees?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

God and Dinosaurs

Over the last several weeks, I have had the privilege and pleasure of participating in another online offering through Coursera. The class, Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology (University of Alberta), has been very interesting and informative. For me, the course has greatly enhanced my understanding of these magnificent creatures and the world of which they were a part. Moreover, it has reaffirmed my commitment to both God and the scientific notion of how life evolved on this earth. For me, the course has provided further evidence of just how wrong and misguided the so-called "Young Earth Creationists" (YEC) really are, and how they have served to damage the reputation of the book (The Bible) and the religion (Christianity) which they profess to defend with their silly notions.

At his Answers in Genesis website, Ken Ham has written: "According to evolutionists, the dinosaurs 'ruled the Earth' for 140 million years, dying out about 65 million years ago. However, scientists do not dig up anything labeled with those ages. They only uncover dead dinosaurs (i.e., their bones), and their bones do not have labels attached telling how old they are. The idea of millions of years of evolution is just the evolutionists’ story about the past." He went on to write: "Other scientists, called creation scientists, have a different idea about when dinosaurs lived. They believe they can solve any of the supposed dinosaur mysteries and show how the evidence fits wonderfully with their ideas about the past, beliefs that come from the Bible." https://answersingenesis.org/dinosaurs/dinosaurs-and-the-bible/

Wrong on both counts Mr. Ham! The notion of millions of years of evolution is supported by a great deal of scientific evidence. Likewise, the notion of a young earth is based on a certain way of reading or interpreting Scripture - There is no single passage in the Bible that refers to the earth as being about 6,000 years old, and there is no collection of passages that overtly suggests such a thing either! To arrive at a young earth interpretation of Scripture one has to employ dubious reasoning and mathematical calculations and ignore a whole host of verses that don't support the thesis.

Mr. Ham and his associates also attempt to place dinosaurs in the Bible. Many of these folks point to the terms dragon, behemoth and leviathan in the KJV as proof that dinosaurs are mentioned in Scripture; and that they existed simultaneously with man. This is a good example of what I was talking about when I said that the YEC had to employ dubious reasoning to arrive at their conclusions. The Hebrew word "tanniyn or tanniym" that is rendered "dragon" in the KJV suggests "a marine or land monster, sea-serpent or jackal" and is also translated as sea-monster, serpent and whale (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). The Greek word is "drakon" and it suggests "a fabulous kind of serpent" (same source). The Hebrew word behemoth/behemowth is used one time in Scripture and implies a water-ox, hippopotamus or Nile-horse (Strong's). Finally, the Hebrew leviathan/livyathan suggests "a wreathed animal, serpent, crocodile or some other large sea-monster" (same source). The truth is that we simply do not know what animals these words reference. From the context and the way they are used, it is quite possible that they refer to a wide range of animals (but notice that most of them seem to be aquatic in nature). Hence, it requires a great deal of conjecture and imagination to arrive at the conclusion that the places where these terms appear in Scripture are references to dinosaurs - something that these same folks would not tolerate in scientists!

Scientists, on the other hand, have the fossil record to point to in support of their conclusions about dinosaurs: footprints, eggshells, coprolites, skin/feather impressions and bones. They can tell a great deal about dinosaurs based on studying the skulls, vertebrae, limb girdles, limb bones, and where the muscle scars appear on the bones of these creatures. Because of the fossil record, scientists know for a certainty that at least some dinosaurs had feathers! Moreover, the very process of how some of the remains of these animals became fossilized supports scientific conclusions about when these creatures roamed the earth.

To become fossilized an animal carcass has to be buried. This requires the deposit of sediments (usually in conjunction with some aquatic environment), and the compression of those sediments into rock (mudstone, shale, sandstone, coal and limestone). This takes time - long stretches of time. We know beyond any shadow of doubt that these things do not form in hundreds or thousands of years. Moreover, the layering of these sediments suggests a long chronology - a succession of deposits over a very long period of time. Finally, it is not unreasonable to assume that something that appears in a lower layer of sedimentary rock is older than something that appears in a layer nearer to the surface. Anyone who has ever been to the Badlands or Grand Canyon has seen direct evidence of this passage of time - and the evidence does suggest the passage of eons.

The fact that some species of dinosaurs are found in certain layers, but not in others also tells us that not all of the many different species of dinosaurs co-existed at the same time. There are also many layers (both older and newer) where we haven't found any dinosaur bones. This tells us that there was a time in the history of the earth when dinosaurs did not exist, and that there was a point in the past when they became extinct. Hence, scientist are on firm ground when they talk about the "Age of the Dinosaurs." Moreover, such a concept is not foreign to our own experience. We could, for instance, speak of the "Age of the Passenger Pigeon" or the "Age of the Tasmanian Tiger."

How do the YEC explain the complete disappearance of such a diverse group of animals? Where have all of the icthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, stegosaurs, iguanodonts, tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs and ceratopsians gone? Did the flood wipe them all out? I thought that Noah was told to take representatives from every kind of land animal into the ark with him and his family.

In short, Young Earth Creationism doesn't stand up under scrutiny - it doesn't mesh with the scientific evidence. It also doesn't fit with the scriptural evidence. For this Christian, I continue to marvel at a Creator who set in motion such a complex and systematic (evolution is not random) process that has produced such diverse and wonderful creatures! What do you think?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Am I really a Christian?

Last week, a friend sent me a link to an article by Ana Marie Cox titled "Why I'm Coming Out as a Christian" (You can view the article at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/28/why-i-m-coming-out-as-a-christian.html). In the piece, Ms. Cox asks "Who do I need to prove my faith to - and why should I try?" Good questions! She talks about her reluctance to publicly declare her religious affiliation because of what President Obama has been subjected to from some conservative elements within Christianity relative to his own claim to be a Christian.

My own experiences in this regard caused me to really connect with the thesis of this article. Over the last year and a half, I have spoken out and written extensively on the subject of Christian attitudes towards gay people and homosexuality in general. As a consequence, my own status as a Christian or a "converted" individual has been called into question by those who disagree with me. Although I would be dishonest to say that such challenges do not hurt, I also cannot say that they were unexpected.

Christians have a long and extensive history of trying to exclude each other from the ranks of the "true believers." Fill in the blank: "You can't be a Christian if you believe/don't believe in ______" (the trinity, tithing, the sacraments, the immortality of the soul, the devil, etc.) or "You can't be a Christian if you ______" (are circumcised, eat pork, celebrate Christmas, rely on doctors, etc.) or "You can't be a Christian if you are a _______" (liberal, socialist, Democrat, Catholic, Mormon, etc.) Moreover, most Christians have developed some means of excluding any member of their group who doesn't conform to whatever the group standard happens to be (excommunicating, shunning or disfellowshipping). In short, Christians have generated a number of ways to verify whether or not someone really is a Christian.

Nevertheless, my experiences have also taught me that the answers to Ms. Cox's questions are: "I don't need to prove my faith to anyone, and I shouldn't have to try!" The bottom line is that God knows whether or not I belong to him (II Timothy 2:19). Also, I know that no person, place or thing can separate me from the love and the grace that I have obtained through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31-39). So, you can spend the rest of your life trying to figure out whether or not I'm a Christian and marshalling your arguments for why your conclusions in this regard are correct (if you really want to waste your time in that fashion) - God and I already know.