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For Heaven’s Sake?

May 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1.26-27)

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!‘”(Isaiah 6.1-3)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2.15)

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them,If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…” (Luke 14.25-26)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16-17)

The color scheme for these quotations will, I hope, become apparent, though it is far from perfect.

One of the most basic criticisms that is often given against Christianity is that it is too “heaven oriented”–that it places all of its emphasis on a future life, at the expense of this life. And, indeed, the religious life in general must appear to the atheist to be quite a waste, the ultimate waste really: to trade your whole earthly life for, well, nothing at all. Yet, from the perspective of the believer, the life of the atheist is a tremendous waste: to trade eternity for something that inevitably passes away. There seem to be two ways of wasting your life, that are in a sort opposition to each other that would be somewhat comical if the subject matter were not so truly serious.

This is a real dilemma. How do we choose how not to be a fool? Fortunately, it has an answer. That answer is found, of all places, in the bible, which offers a third way, the true way. Would you believe that? You see, a basic tension in holy scripture has to do with a creation that is good, yet fallen. A humanity created in the image of God, yet estranged from him. Correspondingly, God is holy and unapproachable, yet his presence fills the earth. The world is full of life from God, yet to stake our heart on life in the world itself, to worship creation rather than creator, is death. One must love what God has created yet “hate his life.” That is part what I was trying to point to with the quotes above.

Within this paradigm, I think it can be seen that the idea that one must trade “this life” for “the afterlife” is a myth. That’s not the offer that is presented in scripture; the bible doesn’t say it like this, doesn’t present us with this framework for reality (despite what that subway preacher might have told you). Let me explain, though, lest I be accused of heresy. It is a myth that has a strong kernel of truth in it: namely, the fact that the best thing in all of life, and in death, for a human being to do is to stake his whole self on Jesus Christ alone, the Word made Flesh, God’s Son and our Savior. Since Christ is the foundation and wellspring of eternal life, he truly is, as evangelicals say, “the only way to heaven.”

But, the thing is, heaven is not the ultimate goal–it is only the destination, for those in Christ. God himself is the ultimate goal. The point is to know him. Heaven is only where we, redeemed and (eventually) resurrected, can know him fully. If we fail to understand this, we will understand neither heaven nor God, and we will view Jesus only as a means to an end. Our Christianity will become gnostic escapism: that is, the idea that this world is intrinsically bad, and that the thing that needs to happen is for us to utter the magical formula that will have our savior come and whisk us away. The atheist is right to see this as a fundamentally wrong approach to life. But this is not Christianity–it is only a caricature.

A proper understanding of how this life relates to the next is, I believe, a crucial thing when it comes to making sense of Christianity. The first thing we have to get straight is that the creation is intrinsically good and has a purpose: it is designed by God, and meant to be filled with his presence. The world we live in, including ourselves and those around us, is meant to be a vessel in which God dwells, and makes himself known to us, the centerpiece of his creation. The second thing we have to realize–equally important–is that the world we live in is fallen. We are fallen. We are deeply fallen and we need a Savior.

That is why Jesus came, died, and was raised. We didn’t deserve such love, yet such love he has. Now, one can say that Christ died for a humanity that didn’t deserve it and have these just be empty words. This happens, I think, when we (Christians) say such things without a perpetual inward glance, when we come to view the world as evil and ourselves, secretly, as good–again the gnostic impulse. This is never entirely conscious (unless God brings it to mind, which in his grace he indeed does), but it can build in our hearts over time. To fight this, when we teach about the doctrine of original sin, we must always think of ourselves, of our own hearts. For it is in ourselves that we know evil closest.

The universal sinfulness of mankind, though true, can seem unreal. Unreal, not because we don’t see evil all around us (we do), but because we don’t have intimate knowledge of its source, as we do in our own case. The wickedness of my own heart is quite closely known, quite real. Quite real when I say foolish things in public, when I think foolish things in private, and when shut my heart to my neighbor in need. Quite real when I view people as a means to an end, and have no patience for them. Quite real when I swell with pride and ambition, and fester in cynicism and judgment. Then it becomes easy, and honest, to believe and proclaim that the death and resurrection of the Son of God is the only answer for this weak, troubled, and dying soul, and all others.

When we realize that we are fallen, we are sinners, we realize that there is a truly Christian way of understanding this life as being, in some sense, of little account. It comes from acknowledging in our brokenness that we were made for something that cannot be had in this life–cannot be had because, as a consequence of  sin, the experience of this life falls short of attaining to the reality of what was always meant for a human soul (and which that soul will indeed experience if he lets God have his way). We do have a fundamental lack that will not be satisfied by anything but to behold our creator in his perfect love, to know him and be known by him. But to realize this is not the end of life, but rather the beginning. It is a relief, a blessing…it makes life itself, in this often sad world, even joyful. “Whoever loses his life will save it.” Nothing that is actually worth anything is lost when we give our lives to Jesus Christ. It means we can embrace suffering, and need not ever fear death at all. It means we can be for the world “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2.9)

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Truth, Honesty, and Brains

May 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I am a person who spends much of his time surrounded by intelligent people. One certainly does not have to be a genius to be an academic but, at least in mathematics, one does at least have to be somewhat bright. And so I spend a lot of time listening to smart people talk. I listen to their ideas, insights, and connections, and admire how often they think about things that ordinary people do not, or think about things in ways in which they are not ordinarily thought about. Mathematicians are full of concepts, criticisms, and abstract ideas. I’m sure the same is true in other academic fields as well.

Probably since some time in high school, I have thought of myself as an intellectual. People have always told me that I’m smart, and this probably was the grounding for a lot of my sense of self-worth (and consequently, for a lot of my pride as well). I am telling you this because I want to tell you about what might be the most important moral insight that I’ve ever had. It is a fact that accounts, at least partially, for something that many have found perplexing: that so many highly intelligent people tend to disagree with each other about so very much. And it is a fact, I believe, that a good many of these same highly intelligent people do not realize.

I suspect that this realization was delivered to me by the grace of God–though I think that the truth of it is accessible to anyone capable of honest reflection. You see, I’ve always considered myself to be a truth seeker, which I am. But, along with that, I always assumed, I always took it for granted, that my intelligence placed me in a superior relation to the truth, in comparison with other people. The moral insight I received was that this isn’t the case. What I realized could perhaps best be summarized like this: the virtue that leads one to truth is honesty, not intelligence.

To make an analogy: if one is lost, it is more important to have a compass than to be able to walk quickly. Honesty is the compass that points us towards the truth. While a good brain may make the journey a bit more easy going in some areas (though probably not in others), if we are pointed in the wrong direction it may actually only make things worse.

But this analogy does not capture the whole of the issue, which is the personal nature of truth, its relation to morality (which is also personal), and how important that connection really is. For, from the Christian view, all truth ultimately reflects something about God or what he has done in the world. Jesus, who is God incarnate, and who claimed himself to be the truth, is ultimately the one we are interacting with–drawing closer towards or pushing away–in all that we do or say or think in relation to knowledge and truth (and in other things as well, but I have narrowed my focus here).

However, ever since the scientific revolution, which heralded in the identification of scientific theory with truth (or at least with the best approximation to the truth), truth became associated with a picture and a method rather than a person: if we could just think clearly, be objective, and get the experiment right, we’d eventually learn how things work after all.

I suspect most people today basically think this is right. What matters in coming to know the truth is examining the evidence properly and thinking logically, perhaps with creativity and inspiration playing a role in fitting things together as well. These are the values of the enlightenment that we still basically hold to. All of the powers of the mind of man are acknowledged today as important parts of the process of coming to know the truth about things.

Now, the basic association between honesty and truth is also somewhat acknowledged, though only incidentally. To illustrate this, I am inclined to use another analogy. Suppose a man tells a lie to his wife: he tells her that he can’t make it home for dinner because he is held late at the office. In reality he won’t make it back because he fully intends to spend the night drinking with his friends. Now, this lie will have practical consequences. He will not, in fact, be home for dinner, disrupting the evening that they had originally planned.

But these simple consequences are, in a way, the least serious reason that the lie is wrong. All and all, the disruption of evening plans is not really a big deal. He could, just as easily, have had a legitimate excuse (reasoning like this is, in fact, one of the things that leads people to tell lies in the first place). What is more significant is the effect that the lie will have on their relationship. Whether or not the wife ever finds out about it, it will probably make the husband more inclined to tell another lie in the future. If she does find out about it, the trust between them will be affected–she will have a more difficult time trusting him. All in all, lies in a relationship bring about division between the parties involved. They make it more difficult for individuals to truly know each other.

What I propose is that the relationship between honesty and truth is acknowledged today primarily in terms of the surface level consequences that are involved–like the man who only considers how his lie will effect the evening plans, and not his marriage overall. If I lie in a scientific experiment, for instance, then the data that I offer to the scientific community will be useless, and may even lead people astray. And this is why the scientific method has such rigorous standards–to weed out the effect of such things (and also the effect of simple error). But this effect, I submit, is only the first layer of how my lie affects things, and it is actually the least serious layer. People will probably eventually figure out that the data I provided is faulty and that the conclusions of my research are incorrect. And science can recover form such things just as easily as it recovers from honest error.

What are the deeper effects of my lie? Well, in this example, the personal component to the lie is certainly less obvious than in the example of the husband and wife. We could say that my lie affects my relationship with the scientific community, and breaks trust in the scientific community in general. I think this is true, though it is not the main point I am trying to make. What I would really like to convey is this: honesty, in general, bears an essential relation to the truth, not an incidental one. But to understand this, we have to bring God into the picture.

When we strip it down, telling a lie, in its most basic sense, is really an effort (conscious or not) to circumvent the Author of reality by constructing a reality of our own, to our own ends. So something much more serious happens than simply the truth not being told when we lie or bend the truth in general. Its not just that knowledge is obscured. We are affected. There are no “white lies.” Our soul, our character, is altered by all of the decisions we make in regards to truth. And we are committing an act of personal import, whether we realize it or not. There is no such thing as an impersonal lie, and indeed there is one person Who is supremely concerned with and affected by all lies. To lie affects one’s relationship with his Creator–an estrangement between man and God.

In our fallenness, we rarely perceive it in this way. The desire to control and create our own reality runs deep, deeper than we realize. I know that I say these things, but that they will probably seem quite unreal to me the next time something (seemingly) important is at stake for me in presenting things as they actually are, or in humbly accepting reality as given by God, rather than fretting about the life I might create for myself. I tend to think, by default, that I have to build a reality of my own construction in order to be safe. But the truth, in the end, is nothing to be afraid of. It’s simply not worth it to hold on to the false worlds we create. So let us…let go! The same Jesus who says “I am the truth” says “fear not!” He will lead us on the right paths, for his name’s sake.

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