Friday, March 28, 2008

Quotable

"What are the moral convictions most fondly held by barbarous and semi-barbarous people? They are the convictions that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and skepticism is a sin."
-Thomas Henry Huxley, On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge

"It is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing evil."
-Friedrich von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

"Morality cannot exist one minute without freedom... Only a free man can possibly be moral. Unless a good deed is voluntary, it has no moral significance."
-Everett Dean Martin, Liberty

"I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects.

Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated.

In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme--whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence--the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication."

-C.S. Lewis, A Reply to Professor Haldane

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

Noteworthy

1. I rarely put much stock in political candidates from either party, given that all they tend to disagree on is which aspects of our lives the government should run for us (and/or to what extent), but I will admit to being impressed by Barack Obama's recent speech in response to the controversy over his pastor's racist sermon. It's rare to hear a politician say something that nuanced. Transcript here, YouTube video here.

2. David from Resolving Realities has a very good essay up that underlines the problem with the "Bible as rulebook" approach to life while addressing the dilemma of how we reconcile the horrors of life with a loving God.

3. The ever-graceful Pam shares her perspective as an educator on how the issue of homosexuality is addressed in public schools. Something tells me she won't be getting invited to any Focus on the Family shindigs in the near future.

4. Finally, it's back. After an entire year of waiting, the best show on television returns two weeks from today...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bridging the Gap

To become neighbors is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look into one another's eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will.

Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.

Henri Nouwen, Bread For the Journey, July 22 entry

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Life Soundtrack 3



More, by Matthew West

I transcribed the lyrics to this song in one of my earliest posts. To this day, that post consistently receives more traffic from Google than everything else on my blog combined. Sometimes I shake my head at that, but then it occurs to me that the message in this song really is the most important one I could share...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Freedom In Practice

Having captured a glimpse of the ideal state of the Christian life, how do we translate that vision into reality? Living without strict boundaries is easier said than done, and it leaves us fully accountable for the consequences of our actions. We may not serve a God who will zap us for coloring outside the lines, as it were, but what we do still matters - possibly even more than it did when we were slaves to legalistic thinking.

The authors of the New Testament all express concern about what we do with our freedom. So how do we determine what we should and shouldn't do? As soon as we try to articulate that by constructing lists of rules, we find ourselves falling back into legalistic thinking. If this dilemma doesn't present us with an outright paradox, we are at the least faced with a tension that we can never fully resolve.

Either way the only proper response seems to be, once again, to rely fully on God's Spirit to guide us. And as much as we may be tempted at times to try to control the behavior of those around us, we have to be willing, at the end of the day, to surrender our 'right' to be right by abandoning our efforts to force them to do what we think is "for their own good." Keeping our own two feet on the path is difficult enough; add in the burden of directing all of another person's steps and the task becomes virtually impossible.

Even so, it's nonetheless true that those new to the faith need guidance of some sort before they can thrive in a boundary-free environment. They need training wheels, as it were, to help them learn how to control their new bicycle. The challenge lies in figuring out how to prepare new Christians to live freely and responsibly without instilling in them a legalistic mindset.

Children first learning how to ride a bicycle understand that the training wheels won't be on their bike for very long, and that no experienced bicycle rider continues to use them. Nonetheless, churches frequently treat the training wheels of the Law as something that we can never outgrow. We become so fearful of sin that we revert to the belief that a perpetual state of spiritual infancy is preferable to the possibility that somebody might ride their bicycle into a ditch, or into the path of an oncoming car.

Once again, fear becomes our undoing. We fear that freedom will inevitably lead to anarchy, so we redefine freedom until it becomes a synonym for conformity. We fear Satan's power to deceive and destroy, so we opt to wield worldly power in an effort to destroy the destroyer. We fear that our loved ones will end up in hell, so we feel justified in using any means that we think might save them from their sin, no matter how abusive.

In the process of subjecting others to what we think is best for them, we lose our own freedom. By fighting fire with fire, we become the embodiment of the same slavery from which God once set us free. We seek to eliminate risk, and in so doing we cut ourselves off from the source of our true power.

Freedom is not without its frustrations. Not only must we allow others to make their own mistakes, but we likewise must respect the choices of those who refuse to give up their training wheels. This creates another potentially unresolvable tension, since the latter seldom reciprocate our respect for their freedom, but in the end it's simply one more thing to entrust to God.

After all, if God can't be trusted to meet them where they're at, what hope do we have?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Total Surrender

Legalism is a basic outgrowth of human nature. Most people - at least those who have not grown beyond their own spiritual adolescence - want rules and boundaries and concrete structure. Surely, their instincts tell them, one could not hope to please God without doing one's best to follow the rules and to make others do the same. Why else would God have spoken to us through the Bible if not to tell us how to conform by laying down the letter of the law?

That the Bible itself continually gets in the way of such expectations is of little consequence. Since a consensus has been reached in advance that the Bible must be a book of rules and regulations, there can be no question that those passages that talk about grace and freedom don't really mean everything that they seem to say.

Thus, it is without any sense of irony that many Christians will put on their "It's a relationship, not a religion" T-shirts even as they proclaim a Christianity that sacrifices true relationship in favor of a code of regulations as strict as any found in any other man-made religion. The more thoughtful will nuance their arguments and acknowledge that there are, in fact, gray areas that no interpretation of the Bible can fully resolve, but in the end they're still left playing a game of "yes, but."

-Yes, we are saved by grace and not by our works, but if you willfully break the rules too many times then God's grace isn't sufficient to save you.
-Yes, God's love is unconditional, but you still have to meet our standards before he'll fully accept you.
-Yes, nothing in all of creation can separate us from God's love, but certain 'important' sins can.
-Yes, Jesus freely associated with the lowest of the low, but he did so to change them.

That last statement is worthy of closer examination, as it is the one that non-legalists would agree contains an element of truth. The prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners that Jesus reached out to went away transformed, and changed their lifestyles accordingly. What the legalists miss, however, is that Jesus transformed them purely through the power of his love. He did not scold them or lecture them or talk down to them, nor did he demand that they change as a condition of his acceptance. Indeed, he saved his harsh words for those who proclaimed themselves godly based on their outward behavior, and who shunned anyone who didn't live up to their high standards.

The one time Jesus did exhort a sinner (John 8:11), it's worth noting that he did so after he had saved her from being executed, and after all of her accusers had left; as far as any of them knew, Jesus might have sent her on her way without another word. He did not make her repent before he rescued her, nor did he threaten her with future punishment should she sin again. He simply showed her mercy and encouraged her to avoid repeating her mistake.

The New Testament contains numerous exhortations to abandon our sinful nature, and many theological treatises have been written about how we can overcome "the flesh." But what if "the flesh" refers not just to our propensity to sin, but to the entire way that we try to relate to God? What if our demand for explicit instructions on how we should order every detail of our lives is, in fact, a way for us to avoid surrendering control to God?

What if dying to ourselves has less to do with avoiding sin than it does with abandoning our rules-based approach to life? By focusing our energies on all the dos and don'ts that we can piece together, are we really pursuing holiness or are we making the very sins that we seek to avoid the centerpieces of our lives?

Abandoning our old system of black-and-white rules might seem like an invitation to chaos, if not death itself - and yet dying to ourselves is precisely what we are called to do as Christians. It might seem as though we are abandoning morality - yet it's precisely because morality is important that the old system of clear-cut, one-size-fits-all rules must be abandoned.

Surrendering our lives to God means giving up everything, including our right to have everything neatly spelled out for us. Living under a law-based system enables us to remain in control of our lives, and to extend that control over the lives of others. Living under grace requires us to permanently give up that control and to become fully dependent on God's Spirit for every step that we take through life.

Few things could be more frightening, but in the end, nothing could be more empowering.