Sunday, December 18, 2016

How is Jesus Christ the Savior? How does he save?

This time of the year, many of us sing or speak of the birth of Jesus Christ the savior. O Holy Night begins with these lines:
O holy night,
    the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night
    of the dear Savior’s birth.
One verse of Silent Night has a verse which ends: “Christ the Savior is born; / Christ the Savior is born. ”

Even a television show, A Charlie Brown Christmas, broadcast annually for the past half-century, includes an excerpt from Luke’s gospel:

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
So what do we mean when we speak or sing of Christ the Savio(u)r?

Thirty or even twenty years ago I probably would have spouted some evangelical jargon about what happens after you die, the summary being that because of Jesus, your eternal soul’s prospects can be good rather than bad.

Today I think I’d begin instead by talking about life here and now, because that’s what Jesus spoke mostly about. The short version would be that by following him, I can live a fruitful, meaningful life and become a good (well, better anyway) person. After explaining a bit more about that, if by then you don’t think I’m a total whack job, I might mention the hope that I can be with him in the world to come.

I might begin like this. You can read a lot these days about paths to success. Recent articles on Linkedin and in print media describe ways to appear more competent or intelligent. The power of such suggestions comes from the nagging doubts we have: Am I really okay? If I do these things that make other people think I’m competent and intelligent, maybe that will quell my own fears.

Such doubts also energize advertisements: maybe I can feel better about myself if I have these gadgets or clothes or this car, or if I live in this neighborhood. And maybe I can overcome my doubts about parenting if my kids get these grades or go to these schools.

These doubts, these insecurities, can poison my life and my relationships. Maybe I’ll pressure my kids to go to absurd lengths in pursuit of some name-brand school; maybe I’ll try to enhance my self-esteem by taking on a mortgage I can’t afford, or spend so much on cars or clothes or gadgets that my family faces constant financial stress.

About those kids: maybe they’ll rebel against the pressure; maybe they’ll crack; maybe they’ll buy into my anxieties and make them their own. So that when they’re at that name-brand school—or even if they aren’t—they’ll contantly wonder, “Am I okay, really? Am I good enough?” That way my destructive legacy can live on—not a happy prospect.

What I’ve described is a kind of life that we need saving from, and by “we” I mean people like you and me. So how can that happen? How can you and I escape the pressure brought about by our doubts and insecurities?

The promise of salvation in Jesus Christ begins, for me at least, with the knowledge that I’m forgiven. Consider that famous verse from John’s gospel, “God loved the world so much that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). I’ll write more about eternal life in a bit; let’s consider the word “perish.”

When I think about “perish,” the image that comes to mind is an overripe banana. Now that’s perishable! In a way, all of us are perishable in the way that a banana is; one day, you and I and everyone we know will get to room temperature, and unless our bodies are burned or something, they will all rot.

There’s a picture, then, of a useless life: we live, we accumulate possessions, we become room temperature, and our bodies are burned or buried. That’s “perish.”

About “believe”: What does it mean to believe in God’s Son? What must we believe when we “believe in” him? Among many things said of Jesus in the gospels, the claim that he takes away sins is pretty important. In John 1:29, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I’ve written about this elsewhere (also here) but the short version is that unless we believe his promise enough to act on it, then it won’t have much of an effect on our lives.

In other words, it’s not magical in the sense that if I say some special phrase, the gods are compelled to do something; it’s more like if I’m hanging off a cliff by my fingernails and someone dangles a rope in front of me, the rope won’t do me any good unless I believe in it enough to grab it. The promise of forgiveness in Jesus doesn’t do me any good if I’m trying to find redemption through buying a bigger house or more toys, or by pressuring my kids to get better grades to get into a better school, or by looking smarter or more competent. I’ve got to accept forgiveness and stop my frantic pursuit of the false promise of so-called “success,” or I’ll continue to poison my life and relationships…

OK, now about eternal life. I don’t quite understand what form our immortal souls take, or what the world to come is about, but the New Testament authors make quite a big deal about it—almost as big a deal as modern evangelicals do!

All kidding aside, though, something I think of is the promise from 2 Peter 1, which talks about adding knowledge and other virtues to our faith; in verse 8 he writes “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will render you neither useless nor unfruitful…” Let me invert that and say that we can be fruitful and useful with the qualities he mentions: faith, knowledge, goodness, brotherly kindness and so on. The point I want to make, though, aside from those qualities, is the goal of all that, viz., to have a fruitful, useful life.

If my life is fruitful and useful, then the effects will remain after I’ve left this earth. Which may not be eternal life exactly, but would, I hope, be better than having a life whose effects all perish with my corpse.

And that in the end is what I want to be saved from: a life that ends when the undertaker’s bill is paid off. And that’s what Jesus saves me from: by assuring me that my sins are forgiven, he makes it possible for me to become something useful, rather than the alternative of poisoning everything in a wrong-headed attempt to escape my demons.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How do you vote?

Frederick Buechner, in his marvelous Secrets in the Dark, recounts a few incidents of the kind Christians like: he receives strange encouragement in a time of stress; an odd phenomenon occurs after a departed friend appears in a dream—this sort of thing. Then he asks us how we would vote on the second most important philosophical question:
On Yes, there is God in the highest, or, if such language is no longer viable, there is Mystery and Meaning in the deepest? On No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that is all there is?
Buechner, p. 171sq.
Actually he used the word “bet” (rather than “vote”) but he points out that we actually bet our lives.
We may bet Yes this evening and No tomorrow morning. We may know we are betting or we may not know. We may bet one way with our lips, our minds, our hearts even, and another way with our feet. But we all of us bet, and it’s our lives themselves we’re betting with in the sense that the betting is what shapes our lives. And we can never be sure we’ve bet right, of course. The evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous. A coincidence can be, as somebody has said, God’s way of remaining anonymous, or it can be just a coincidence. Is the dream that brings healing and hope just a product of wishful thinking? Or is it a message from another world? Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith.
op. cit., p. 172
Indeed, it’s not that Yes takes faith and No takes only courage and reason; it takes just as much faith to vote No as Yes—I might argue it takes more. Bertrand Russell had a lot of faith to bet No, as he expressed in a famous essay:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; …
I confess mixed reactions to Russell’s view. On one side, if he’s right, then (as the Bible says) “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”; I can ignore my conscience and exploit anyone for any reason, or no reason …

But Kant says that’s not philosophically consistent, and Mill argues in the generalized version of utilitarianism that it’s a bad idea. Practically, one might feel the need to buy a lot of guns, because if everyone thought and acted that way, it would be like a Wild West sans law enforcement.

But I see two more big problems with Russell’s way of thinking. First, if someone sincerely holds those beliefs, and lives accordingly, what kind of life do they have? What kind of person do they become, if they think that your hopes and fears, your loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations…? A brief thought-experiment tells me that I don’t really want a life like that, and that I don’t want to be around anyone who lives that way either.

Another big problem is, as Lewis wrote, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?” Indeed, Russell claims to be a random text generator, but I don’t actually believe him.

Back to the first question: how do you vote on Buechner’s question? Yes, there is some kind of real meaning in life? Or No, things just happen, and they mean whatever you choose them to mean?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Science and Faith (not by Mary Baker Eddy)

Yesterday's talk on "Science and Faith" was enlightening. A key insight was that some study science for many of the same reasons that some study faith. These sets overlap, as in the case of our speaker, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an oceanographer and former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. (I'll not comment on Jefferts Schori's theology, except to say it came up only peripherally in yesterday's talk.)

So why do people study science? And faith? For one thing, they (we) are inspired by wonder and a desire for understanding. We bring passion to our study: a love of beauty and excellence. An elegant theory is a beautiful one, in both fields.

Both science and faith have history and tradition; both are done in community. And in both fields, advancement comes from questions. (Questions can also bring trouble, which occurs to me just as I type these notes.)

Change is often resisted by the community, but if the community is healthy, new ideas are evaluated according to their merits. The Bereans, for example, upon hearing new ideas from Paul and Silas, judged these ideas for their content, rather than on their political implications (Acts 17:11). Contrast this with the reactions of the Thessalonians in Acts 17:5-7.

Science, too, has good examples and bad. The good examples we consider normative and typical, as we'd like them to be. But bad examples abound. Think of Semmelweis and hand-washing, Galileo and his debunking of Aristotle, or the chilly reception the Big Bang theory got in the previous century.

So religion and science have more similarities than I'm accustomed to think. This puts me in mind of a class Carol and I took some time back, "Encountering the World of Islam," where a key insight for me was that there are a lot more similarities than differences.

Differences there are, to be sure—fundamental differences in fact. But similarities abound. In science and faith, in Islam and Christianity, there are good characters and bad, those motivated by truth and those motivated by self-interest. Well, that's a bit simplistic; we all have mixed motives, but some are more willing, perhaps more able, to accept truth when it surprises them.

Math == Theology?

During the Q&A period after the talk, a man across the room said that with new ideas in science, we can test them via evidence. If people can run experiments similar to yours and get similar results, they can confirm the theory. But for theology, where's the evidence?

The bishop replied that there's the evidence of a life well-lived, but that the time scale is quite different.

But I was stuck on the idea of running experiments. You can run experiments in physics or chemistry or even psychology. Neuroscience. But mathematics? (I studied math in college.)

A mathematical proof is an argument by which you try to force the other guy to accept your claim. Well, all scientific proofs are, I guess, but you can't run math experiments very easily; you appeal to past results, you apply axioms and rules and theorems to one formula to get another, and someone can say you've made an incorrect inference, if you have. But there's no experimenting.

And theology? God doesn't necessarily cooperate with any experiments. You want a control? God won't be controlled.

Postscript: Questions

Jefferts Schori mentioned that advancement comes through questions, and it occurred to me while typing that questions sometimes bring trouble. We see this in Genesis 3, where an accusation comes in the guise of a question—a question asked by the devil in the guise of a serpent! I think honest questions that spring from honest curiosity—or even honest doubt—are great and must be encouraged. But we need to pay attention and to be discerning lest we drift away, as the writer to the Hebrews (2:1) warns.

The Lord himself said, be as shrewd as snakes (Matthew 10:16); the Apostle Paul wrote, "I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil." The Apostle Peter tells us to be on the alert (1 Peter 5:8)—not against questions, but against the accuser.