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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Infallibility, Omnipotence, and Omniscience should be Banned from Faith

The pope, Benedict XVI is retiring and, in so doing, is losing his claim to papal infallibility. Up until February 28, 2013 anything that he says as the leader of the Catholic Church is considered to be infallible and a part of the church's doctrine. However when he ceases to be the leader, he won't be infallible anymore.

But was he ever? Really?

There are arguments for and against papal infallibility and there are similar arguments for and against biblical infallibility, but how do they really help the Christian cause?

I don't think they do. Really.

When we start off with the supposition that something is infallible that puts it beyond questioning, but that's exactly what we need to do with the bible and the doctrines of the church. The book of scripture that we have today didn't come about because it was deemed infallible, it came about because it was deemed useful by the people of God putting it into practice.

Put another way: they tried it and they liked it. The put the bible to the test of life and it passed. Not every book did, those ones were left out. The ones that remain contain a united story of God seeking out his people from the beginning of time to the end. It's a beautiful story. But we only have it because our faithful forbears had the audacity to question scripture.

Which brings us to the doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience - that God can do anything and knows everything. It sounds good, but it's actually a problematic position that doesn't come from the bible.

Go back to Genesis - what does God do immediately after creating the world? He rests. Now that might be because he was tired (we don't really know), but we do know that he rests. Later in Genesis God and Abraham are bargaining over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions God's plan and God is willing to change his mind in response to Abraham's plea (we get this again from Moses, Job, David, and the city of Nineveh). If God knows everything then the appearance of free will and the necessity of prayer become mere playthings rather than relational necessities.

Rather than saying the bible is infallible, we should affirm that it is useful.
Rather than saying God is omnipotent, we should affirm that he is powerful.
Rather than saying God is omniscient, we should affirm that is is supremely wise.

When we step back from the precipice of the infinite we allow God and the bible to be in relationship with us and us with them. Relationship must allow for mystery, questions, conversation, and revelation. If one side of the relationship is unquestionable, unknowable, and unreachable then it's not a true relationship.

So, how big of a heretic am I?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Basis of Belief

"Some things have to be believed to be seen."

That quote has been variously attributed to Ralph Hodgson, Madeline L'Engle and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe they all said it, it's not that original. In fact, it's the basis of almost everything we do on a daily basis.

Going back to the conversation about Thomas and how the evidence helped him to believe, we have to assume that it was his belief that helped him to see the evidence. There were many other people who saw Jesus resurrected and decided that it wasn't him.

But let's come back to that.

In 1982 an Australian scientist named Barry Marshall developed the hypothesis that stomach ulcers were caused, not by stress and spicy food, but by a bacterium. The scientific community ignored him, ridiculed him, and flat-out wouldn't believe him. The conventional wisdom was that stomach acid was too harsh an environment for bacteria to live in. Marshall persisted, but no one would believe him until, at his wits' end, he drank down a petri dish of the suspect bacteria. Within a few days he developed the ulcer.

This was proof that his hypothesis was right. It was in 1985.

Yet for decades the public and the scientific community alike persisted in believing that stress and spicy food caused ulcers. Finally, in 2005, Marshall's work was recognized and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.

It was only because he believed in his hypothesis that he saw a bacterium as the cause of ulcers instead of stress. Everyone else in the scientific community saw the same evidence yet believed something different. In the end, Marshall was shown to be right, but proof wasn't enough to convince the world. His unyielding belief was an indispensable part of the process.

Evidence can't exist without belief. Or rather, I should say that evidence isn't perceived as such without belief. It might be a bacterium, a sub-atomic particle, karma, or the resurrection of Jesus, whatever it is, unless you want to believe it, any evidence can be dismissed. And, if you're predisposed to believe it, anything can be construed as evidence.

That puts us in this dangerous middle-ground where we can't have any epistemic certainty. That is, we can't know for sure that we know anything. Since what we believe informs what we do with evidence and what we do with evidence informs what we believe, there's no beginning nor end to the cycle. Descartes' Archimedian point is quicksand. It's the chicken and the egg.

The basis of belief, then, is the certainty that we cannot have any certainty. Once we accept that everything we perceive is filtered through the lens of our belief, then we can start figuring out how good our beliefs are and how good our evidence is.

What have you seen because you believed in it?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to Believe without Evidence

"Sure," you might say, "it's easy to say that Thomas was a good example, but he had empirical evidence of Jesus. What am I supposed to do?"

Good question. How are we supposed to believe, or more to the point, how are we supposed to overcome doubt without evidence?

Our cultural fear of doubt is one side of the coin, the other is our desire for empirical evidence. We want to know for sure. We'll be convinced by statistics, studies, proof, hard evidence. Marketing, politics, academics, warfare, and religion are all now supposed to be based on hard data. We can target this demographic and have a 78% chance of success. We can make this product and have just a 5.5% chance that it will hurt anyone. We can attack that country and have a 35% chance of achieving our goals. We can calculate the statistical probability that God exists at 67%.

But none of that is evidence. None of that is the same at touching the resurrected Jesus.

So, how can I doubt like Thomas did? How can I be expected to believe the same way that the apostles did?

You might be saying now, "If God really wanted me to believe in him, he'd give me proof. Since I have no proof, he must not exist."

You bring up a good point. What would you say to you?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Be Like Thomas

When did we get to the point of thinking that we don't need any evidence for what we believe?

When did we get to the point of thinking that doubting is bad?

I had someone challenge me recently in my assertion that doubt is a good thing. His response was that we shouldn't doubt Jesus. I thought about it for a moment and then realized that doubting Jesus isn't condemned in the bible, it's exemplified.

Thomas famously questions his compatriots who told him about Jesus' resurrection. He stubbornly refused to believe until he had proof (which the others already had). When Jesus showed up again he didn't hesitate to provided the requested proof. He didn't condemn Thomas for his doubts, and then Thomas, in the light of the evidence, provides the best and fullest understanding of who Jesus is when he exclaims: "My Lord and my God."

I wonder if the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rational thought and proof is actually what planted the seeds of irrational thought and lack of proof in religion.

Sure, there have been many attempts to rationalize and prove religion. There are apologists that make it their work to provide Christian evidence and advocate for intelligent design. But their arguments seem to trail off at the end. They seem to all reach a point where you have to "just believe." And any expressed doubt is anathema.

Jesus was quick to point out things that made him angry. He flipped tables in the temple, broke the Sabbath in the synagogue, and called the law-teachers children of the devil. Let's just say he wasn't subtle in expressing his disapproval when he felt it.

And he doesn't disapprove of Thomas doubting.

What does that say about doubt? What does that say about us?

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Examined Life

Socrates famously said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." (ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ)

He's spent his life devoted to the idea that asking questions, and encouraging others to do the same, would make himself, his students, and the world a better place.

He died for that idea.

People aren't dying today (in most places) for this same idea, but they are often silenced. Socrates challenged the standards of everything and held that nothing could be beyond examination. Religion, politics, love, science, warfare, history - all of it was fair game. And, like it was 2,400 years ago, all of it still strikes a nerve when anyone seeks to question the decided truth.

Doubt is tantamount to heresy in most churches, in most political parties, in most relationships, in most of our lives.

Yet doubt guides us to truth. Doubt gives us the tools and the distance to learn. If we don't doubt our own knowledge, we can't add to it. If we don't doubt our own conclusions, we can't better them. Without doubt, progress is impossible.

If the conclusions you've come to are right, then there is no risk in re-examining them. You will, invariably, discover that they are still correct. So, the only risk to examining your long-held conclusions is that you might be wrong. The only risk is that you might find an erroneous conclusion that you can change.

That risk was so terrifying to the people in power that they put Socrates on trial for it. He chose death rather than living a feckless, risk-free life with no more examination.

How do you deal with doubts?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Should Churches Die?

Last week I had a conversation about whether or not churches should die. I've been thinking about it, and I'm not sure what the answer is.

On the one hand is the research that shows the average church lifespan is from 50-80 years and that only one-in-twenty churches can be revitalized to extend that lifespan (Gray, Legacy Churches).

But, I was challenged to come up with biblical basis for allowing churches to die. I had a hard time coming up with anything.

So, on the one hand, we have the reality of the situation which says that normally churches die after about 80 years, but on the other hand we have the exceptions that continue to thrive for centuries. So, on which should we base our practice?

I did think about Jesus teaching on death in John 12 - "Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."

He's not necessarily talking about churches here, but about himself. But it's clear that he's setting himself as an example for his followers. Death leads to life. Jesus died so that others could live and he asks his followers to do the same. Is it too much of a stretch to extend that principle to churches?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I think a few things are clear:
1. We need to get much better at starting new churches. For some reason this is still a struggle rather than a natural response.
2. We need to get much better at revitalizing existing churches a 5% success rate is abysmal.
3. We need to get much better at dying for the sake of others. What that means, exactly, I'm not sure. But Jesus clearly taught that his followers are the types of people that are willing to sacrifice for others.

What do you think? Should churches die?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Where have I Been? or Killing me Softly

I've been absent from this blog for too long. I'm sorry about that.

Over the last month and a half I've been walking with the Peninsula Church of Christ as they made the decision to close down. I've also been struggling with the source of my creativity. I think the two are connected.

The journey with Peninsula has been good, but difficult. I'm blessed and thrilled to have been able to support and work with the courageous leaders of the church as they looked at what it would take to revitalized the church and, ultimately, making the decision to close.

That journey has taken enormous creative and emotional energy. It's not something that I'd recommend lightly (though it's fully worth it). I've often felt drained and exhausted emotionally. Poured out feels like an accurate metaphor.

In the midst of all that I didn't have anything left in my creative well to draw on. I had drawn down to the bottom and had nothing left. Now I'm working to learn the skills of refilling the well and only drawing as much as I can replenish.

Going forward, Peninsula will close, Andrea and I will find another church with which to work, and I will write more here (and other places). But for now, please accept my apology.

What refills your creative well?