Sunday, May 27, 2018

Incomplete Christianity

Last post I reflected a bit on what Christians teach about pain and suffering. How many Christians get the traditional Christian teaching wrong and that leads many to reject religion entirely because their wrong ideas don't pass the scrutiny of modern secular people. Andy Stanley saw this but he did not see the Protestant Reformation as being the ultimate source of many of these wrong ideas and the Catholic teaching on suffering as being right. He flirts with the Catholic notion on suffering but does not go there completely. Still he sees quite rightly that the incomplete answer is inadequate and causes people to lose their faith.

This pattern is more common. Sexual morality is one key area. The Protestant decision to accept artificial contraception has rendered their philosophy of sex incoherent. If it is OK to separate sex from child bearing then why it is not OK to separate it from marriage? You remove the one key piece and it become impossible to make the puzzle fit. So what most understand to be Christian sexual morality is really not it. It does not ring true to people because it is not true. True Christian sexual morality was abandoned by Protestants in the last 100 years. Catholics still teach it officially but many Catholics reject it as well. So modern man is rarely exposed to true Christian sexuality either in the form of teaching or in the lives of Christians. The rules are arbitrary and inconsistent and don't appeal to people at all.

In my devotions I have been reading about spiritual dryness and the dark night of the soul. I start to realize that this can be another area where many people are not exposed to actual Christian teaching. Atheists point to Mother Teresa's admission of spiritual dryness as proof Christianity is false. Why? Because they Christianity they understand does not have an explanation for this. The conversion is everything and the struggles you experience later are not really talked about. You are saved and you are not committing any big sin so what is the issue? Yet you don't exactly have the joy and the fruitfulness that will make others want to become a Christian.

Mother Teresa had dryness but managed to have joy and fruitfulness anyway. Why? She was a Carmelite nun. She started her own order later but she was formed in the Carmelite way. So she would have been very familiar with the great Carmelite doctors of the church, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. These people understood spiritual dryness as a gift. It gives you the ability to choose Jesus not for the consolations you receive from Him but because you love Him. You have to live on faith and not on sight so you know your faith is real. This is something she would know about and expect as part of her walk with God. She did not expect it for as many years as it happened but that was just a surprise in intensity not in kind.

The trouble is that post-reformation Christianity has trouble getting past the ABC's of the faith. They disagree enough about those. Once you get past that you get so much disagreement that you are pretty much on your own. Lots of good advice. Lots of bad advice. All of it claiming to be biblical and most seem to take that seriously. So how do you find truth in that mess? You deal with spiritual dryness and you get a lot of answers. Some tell you to just lower your expectations of what religion is supposed to be. Some say to find a funkier worship experience and manufacture some excitement. Some will tell you to quite the ministry you and try something new. Good thing Mother Teresa did not do that.

So what you end up with is Christianity looking very unimpressive to the outside observer. Lots of testimonies that say I found Jesus. Yet the strong feelings that are at the core of those testimonies often go away. Then what? Really it is like the Israelites. They had their huge experience of being saved from the Egyptians through the 10 plagues and parting of the Red Sea. They experienced God at Mt Sinai in a powerful way. Then what? There was 38 years in the dessert. Lots of hard days. They actually pointed out many days were harder than what they experienced in Egypt as slaves. Yet the reality was they were not slaves and that was a big deal. Yet wandering in the desert for so long is not is hard to take. People who were expecting something easier can get disillusioned. 

The true Christian faith is beautiful enough and strong enough to attract people to it. Yet we need to get it right and we need to do it in enough detail to live it out. Stanley talked a lot about the Christians of the first few centuries. How they lived the truth despite persecution was such a strong witness and attracted pagans to the faith. How we live it actually sends people back to a modern version of paganism. Somehow we have lost the true faith. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Problem Of Pain

Still moving through Andy Stanley's series on Who Needs God. Like I said, he does take seriously the problem of people choosing to give up on religion entirely. He things Christianity has done something wrong but he does not go deep enough. He sees that the way many Christians relate to the bible is not working but does not really ask where does that bible-centered thinking come from? The obvious answer is the reformation and he does not dare question that.

Now he looks at pain and evil. Why are we shocked that pain and evil exist in the world? Many see it as a reason to reject Christianity. That has not always been the case. In fact, the church endured terrible suffering in the first few centuries. Their suffering actually brought them closer to God. Why does it move them away from God now?

It comes back to heresy. People think they know the Christian answer to suffering but many do not. Many think the Christian answer is that suffering comes from sin and the answer is to stop sinning. That is part of it. The bible is full of statements that obedience produces joy and sin leads to misery. Yet that is a certain kind of joy and certain kind of misery. The more superficial and more visible joy and misery often work that way but not always.

When I say more superficial I mean things that can be very intense. Heb 12:2 says, "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." So Jesus' suffering on the cross was superficial. It was intense suffering but there was a deeper joy. So by comparison it can be called superficial but it can be intense enough to dominate your life. That kind of suffering can and does happen to Christians. 

So if you leave aside the dynamic where we rebel against God's will and maybe we end up in jail or maybe we end up in addiction or in a broken relationship or whatever. That happens a lot but that is not all suffering. There is random suffering where someone get cancer or someone has a car accident or whatever. No obvious sin caused it. Then there is suffering actually brought on by living out your faith. Jesus' suffering on the cross. He was the first of many Christian martyrs. Maybe God calls you to make a painful decision. Often it ends up being much less painful than feared but not always. Sometimes it just hurts and that is the road we are supposed to travel. 

So what is the answer to the problem of pain or the problem of evil in those situations? There are 2 answers really. The first answer is, "Wait." God sees pain and sees evil. He is doing something about it. It is just taking time. We need to trust that God will right every wrong and wipe away every tear. His Kingdom is delayed because he wants to give us time to repent but His Kingdom will come. Then all the questions around the problem of evil will be answered. God's justice and mercy will be evident.

In some ways "Wait" is not a helpful answer. We have to live life now. Knowing that all this will make sense in the end helps but only so much. We need something more. The second answer God gives to this question is the cross. Now Andy Stanley got about as close as a Protestant can to talking about this. He seemed to realize the suffering of Jesus together with the suffering of the early church was the key. Still he stopped short of saying our suffering can become salvific. Just too Catholic an idea.

Still the notion of really embracing the cross and seeing our sufferings as carrying our own cross. That can really transform the way we suffer. The infinite love of God can be made more powerful by our finite love. We can see that. It can touch others because we are human and human love is easier for human to relate with. Similarly the infinitely powerful suffering of Jesus can be made more powerful by our suffering. It can bring grace to our lives and the lives of those we know. God chooses to give our suffering meaning the same way He chooses to give the rest of our life meaning. He allows us to make a difference. Sometimes He allows us to make an eternal difference. 

St Paul says in Col 1:24, " Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." What is lacking in Christ's afflictions? Not that they are not enough. It is that they are not applied to everyone at every time. Paul sees his suffering as allowing Jesus suffering to have full effect in the church and thus being meaningful. 

That is the true Christian answer to the problem of pain. If we don't understand that answer and believe that answer then atheists will always have a point when talking about pain and evil. The criticism will ring true in the ears of many because our answer will necessarily be incoherent. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Who Needs God?

At our parish men's group we are watching the Who Needs God videos by Andy Stanley. They are quite well done. We have not made it through the whole series yet but he is making some of the same points I have made. He makes them a lot better. He is an exceptional communicator. The basic message is that the rise in atheism has nothing to do with the notion that atheism has suddenly become appealing. In fact, many who leave Christianity do not associate themselves with atheism. They call themselves the Nones. That is when asked which religion they are they don't say Atheist. They say None. 

He actually points out many of the conclusions many of the leading atheist thinkers have come to. They take seriously the possibility that there is no god and try to make sense of life. It is hard. We become the centre. All meaning is centred around what we feel is meaningful. All morality is centred around what we feel is right. Yet can we trust our feelings? The answer is No. We know people who based their life on what they felt is good and meaningful and got it terribly wrong. Do we have any reason to believe our own feelings are immune from such serious errors? No.

The conclusions that atheist philosophers draw are much worse. About free choice being an illusion, about love and beauty having no real value, about the human person being indistinguishable from animals and even machines. These are all out there but I am not sure he went over them in enough detail to convince anyone who was not already convinced. Still he does enough to show atheism, if true, is a terrible truth. It does not just declare God to be a delusion but it says anything you have ever thought worthwhile about your life or anyone's life is a delusion as well. 

Then he moves on to his main point. He says the real problem is not that atheism is appealing but the real problem is that people are latching on to wrong notions of theism. What is being presented as authentic Christianity is actually an incoherent theology that people eventually reject for good reasons. He lists a number of these. He is mostly right. These ideas are out there. They do not make sense and they are not taught by traditional Christianity. 

The trouble is he is declaring all these teachings to be heresy. He needs to do that. Yet he does not claim the authority to be able to do that. Andy Stanley does not claim to be able to define what doctrines Christians must believe and what heresies they must reject. Yet he does exactly that. He gets away with it rhetorically. You can always do that. You can say this other idea makes no sense or it is unbiblical or whatever. Yet if you put him side by side with someone who believes one of these ideas it would not be so clear which is the biblical one or which is the logical one. 

How can you make it clear? Typically the only way to make clear which is the orthodox teaching and which is the heresy is to appeal to tradition. To go back to prominent Christian thinkers from previous generations and show that what they are teaching is not in line with what Christians have historically taught and what you are teaching is in line with them. Yet that line of reasoning is precisely what protestants rejected in the reformation. 

This is why we have atheism. Christianity is a complex faith. It is important we get it right. If we distort it in some way we can end up in an incoherent belief system. Then we are asking people to spend their lives on something that does really make sense. They are not going to want to do that. 

The controversies get harder. So far he has stayed away from the questions around sexual morality. I am surprised because he claims to base these talks on reading many de-conversion stories. That is stories of Christians losing their faith either to become an Atheist or become a None. I have read a fair few of those stories too. Many of them talk about sexual morality. That can reduce their credibility. Christians can dismiss them saying this guy just wanted to engage in a certain sex act and his faith told him No so he ditched his faith. Sometimes that is accurate but often it is not. 

Even people who are married and faithful have questions. Can I tell someone who is not married and in a sexual relationship that they need to stop having sex or get married? Can I tell a woman who is pregnant and sees huge problems with having a child that she should not have an abortion? Can I tell someone who is same-sex attracted that sex is for marriage and marriage is for a man and a woman? For all these questions the answer may well be Yes but you don't want to say that unless you are sure you are right. Can we be sure we are right? Can we know God's truth on these questions with any sort of certainty? If not, then why bother with Christianity? If so, then what do you reply to all the liberal Christians who claim you are wrong?