How Kierkegaard, Jesus, and a Transgender Person are Making Me Rethink Labels

Philosophy has always been something that I enjoyed learning about, and with out a doubt my favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard. I don’t want to spend too much time on him because he is not the focus of this article. The only reason I bring up Kierkegaard at all is because he is the author of a famous quote that I am just now beginning to understand:

“If you label me you negate me.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

I love Kierkegaard, but I always thought that this was a terrible quote. Labels are important after all. If we never labeled anything how could we organize ourselves. Compartmentalizing the vastness of stuff out there is important if we ever plan to get anything accomplished. The problem I am just now realizing though is that this is not always true with people.

As a culture we love labels. We love labeling each other and labeling ourselves. If you don’t believe me just look at how many Christian denominations there are out there. While I like to think that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we still  have hundreds of different factions all over the place. Even Baptists (the faction I call home) have dozens of mini-branches under the umbrella term of Baptist. I’m not even getting into political beliefs, class, race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or societal/cultural concepts.

I could easily list twenty or so terms that “define me” as a person, but if I’m honest none of them are really all that encompassing of me. In a lot of cases I’m only partially synonymous with my label. In other cases I fit my label as it is defined, but not as it is perceived by others or as society as a whole. Labels can be too big, too small, incomplete, inadequate, and often changing with time. It’s almost impossible to define you by just spouting off labels. Even if I did give you the perfect terms to describe my heritage, religion, politics, class, gender, orientation, and philosophy would you actually know me?

My brain goes to that beautiful scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) really gets to put Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in his place for the first time:

“You’re an orphan right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a **** about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t read in some ***** book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

– Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting”

So we get the point by now, labels are incomplete at best and hurtful at the worst, but why am I bringing any of this up? Well the other day I was faced with something I really never expected to be faced with. I was given the opportunity to minister to a person who felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to interact with a person dealing with a non-hetero normative gender identity.

I am a licensed minister working at a Southern Baptist church and this young person (I’m still trying to figure out whether “He” or “She” is the more appropriate term) was suddenly placed under my spiritual guidance. I’m now forced to make a judgement call on how to approach something I know almost nothing about.

I mean I knew that people like this existed. I know about sex changing operations and I had read about clinical psychological studies on gender identity, but I had never actually had to deal with this on a personal level. Similar to Will Hunting, I had read the books but that didn’t mean I knew anything at all about this person. This is where it the idea of a transgender person became real to me for the first time. Suddenly transgender people weren’t a work of fiction, or some strange tribe living in strange places like New York or California. This was a real person with feelings, needs, hopes, dreams, and desires that I was encountering.

Luckily all the stress from this unexpected situation faded away quickly when I realized just how silly I was being about this whole thing. This person I was dealing with was not an embodiment of the entire transgender culture, any more than I am an embodiment of white heterosexual manhood. This was just another human being, and this person wants the same thing all of my other youth want; love, acceptance, compassion, friendship, spiritual guidance, and support for when times get rough. Yeah, I might eventually have to have to talk about this gender identity thing, but we can do that when and if that person decides the time is right. My job is the love this person and point them to Jesus, end of story.

Reflecting back on this realization it really dawned on me just how dehumanizing labels can be (even if they are accurate). It is so easy to make all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes based around whatever label we assign people, and every time we do that it robs them of their humanness and individuality. A person is not defined exclusively based on any one factor and yet we put so much work into labeling people as if that was the key to understanding them.

Jesus dealt with crowds and groups, but he also always saved times for individuals. Do you think the Samaritan woman was only that, a Samaritan and a woman, in Christ’s eyes.  Do you think he saw Zacchaeus as simply a tax collector like the rest of his community did? Were lepers just lepers in the Lord’s eyes? Was Nicodemus just a Pharisee? Peter just a poor fisherman?

The answer over and over is no. Jesus saw people for people. He knew their heart and he didn’t concern himself with trying to fit people into neat little categories. Over and over we see Jesus dealing with people from all sorts of classes and categories as individuals. He didn’t ignore who they were, but he also wasn’t so caught up labels that he missed the person underneath.

I’ll tell you right now that I would have never even considered asking a cross dressing transgender person to come to church. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that, but if I knew a person who had those labels attached to them I think I’d pass over offering them an invite. I’d just assume that they would hate it and that they probably already have a negative view of the church, but honestly who am I to make that call. Luckily for me, while I was trying to make a cool youth group for “church kids” one of my youth had the Christ like love to give that confused and scared person an invite to come and hangout with Jesus this week. I think that that alone makes that brave fourteen year old girl a much evangelist and representative of Christ than me. Thank God for people like her.

So I guess I’ll wrap this post up with a commitment and a challenge. I am going to commit to avoiding playing the label game as much as possible. I’m going to commit to looking at individuals and loving people regardless or whatever titles and baggage they have. I challenge you to do the same.

“… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

Christianity With A Side of Zen: Six Zen Teachings Christianity Should Re-Learn

The other day I found myself under a great deal of stress. A storm on monday had rained down some baseball sized hail on my old car that I was just about to sale. My windows are all cracked, my exterior is dented, and my roof has a hole in it… It was not a great way to kick off the week.  On top of that my frantic mind was already having to deal with the pressures that come from handling school, work, ministry, and social pressures.  I’m the type of guy who has a mini-panic attack at least once a week, usually over things that are entirely out of my control. It’s a problem, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it than I was in the past.

Anyways I just happened to stumble upon a book about Zen on this most stressful day. I typically don’t care much for Eastern philosophy (I find it too circular and vague) but while reading I started to draw some connections to my faith. Some of the things proposed in this book could easily be translated into Christianity, and some of them when I really thought about it, were already a part of my faith. I had simply forgotten about them or failed to see them on first glance.

Now I’m not trying to suggest (as some have) that Jesus was somehow influenced by Buddhist teachings. I’m also not advocating “Zen-Christianity” which downplays Christ to a mere wisdom teacher who was no more “divine” than Joe the Plumber. What I am doing is simply bringing to light some often forgotten Christian teachings, and doing so through Zen.

1) Just Look at What’s There:

“Shoshin” is the Buddhist concept of the beginners mind. This is a mental attitude that allows for one to be open and eager to learn. If a person has a beginner’s mind then they will not come in with a bunch of preconceived notions or beliefs already set. In this way they will get a richer and fuller experience since they are not stumbling over how to make everything fit into the worldview they have already adopted. I think if one really wants to experience Christ it would be wise to leave as much theological baggage behind as possible.

Have you ever noticed that people tend to be able to twist the Bible to say just about anything they want it to say? I once knew a guy who was very big into gun’s and after many searches he had compiled a list of scriptures that he believed proved that the Bible followed his anti-gun control political beliefs. Now I really don’t have much an opinion about this gun control debate, but I’m pretty confident that the authors of the Bible weren’t writing with the intention of having some guy thousands of years down the road quote them to defend his right to own a boom-stick.  This is a silly example, but far too often Christians (myself included) will approach scripture already knowing what we want it to say. We want Jesus, or Paul, or Moses, to agree with us and we’ll nit pick up a storm to try to make them. The problem here is that in doing so we are not worshiping God or letting the words of scripture penetrate us and grow us, instead we are molding the Bible into our own image and worshiping it as our own.Wrong-way-to-read-the-Bible

If the way we read the Bible always backs up what we already believe we aren’t going to grow at all. Jesus’ teachings aren’t really going to help you if all you do is try to figure out how to turn him into a puppet that sides with you. There are so many doctrines, ideas, beliefs, and desires blocking our view when we read scripture that sometimes it can be hard to see what the authors might actually be saying. I can tell you with complete confidence that Jesus was not a Calvinist or an Armenianist, nor was he Catholic or Protestant. Jesus wasn’t any of these things because these are all lenses through which we view Christ. We have so much theological baggage tied to us that we have a hard time putting it all aside and seeing the Christ for who he was.

Christ was not amazed by our theological exegetical or hermeneutical skills, in fact what he really wanted from his followers was nothing more than a simple child like faith:

“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matthew 18:2-4

How often we tend to forget that the savior of the world spent his time with simple shepherds, fishermen, and street people. In trying to rationalize, compartmentalized, dissect, and study Christ we must be very careful that we don’t miss Christ in the process. This is not an attack on academics or Biblical studies, as much as it is a call not to miss the big picture.

Let Jesus be Jesus and try to experience him and his words with new eyes. Let him teach you, mold you, and make you into the person he wants you to be instead of the other way around.

2) Meditate (Spend Time Experiencing God)

Meditation is something most people attribute to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, but taking some time out of your day to escape the world and sit in silence is something I think most Christians would benefit from. Before I go any further I’d like for you to take a moment and consider when the last time you actually just walked with God. I’m not talking about your “Christian walk” but a more literal walk. When is the last time you opened up some time in your day to let God speak to you. Maybe it’s been a while. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the last time you did this, sitting in silence is not something that a lot of Christians make a regular practice of.

urlBy proposing this I am not really trying to come up with some East meets West hybrid religion, instead I’m just suggesting we open ourselves up more to experiencing God in the silence. In the 46th Psalm we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” and when Elijah was in the mountains he learned that God was not found in the fire, the wind, nor the earthquakes, but rather the silence. One of the first things Jesus does in Mark 1:35 is go off to be alone with God and frequently we get the image of Christ finding a nice quiet place to be with the Father. Finding God in the stillness isn’t something that is new, but it is something that I think Christianity could use some more of.

Consider your prayer life, do you make time for God in your every day life?  When you pray do you set aside time to let God move in you and speak to you, or do you spout off a list of requests before bed each night and before meals? There’s nothing wrong with bringing concerns before God, but I think we would all benefit if we, like those before us, took time away from our distracting and busy lives every day to just be with God and enjoy his presence.

3) Keep It Simple

Zen teachings are not very complicated, though many people could easily make them out to be. Simplicity is a term that could not often be applied to Christian theology. We ask a lot of complicated questions and we want very detailed answers. We aren’t just satisfied with “abstain from sexual sin” because we want a very detailed list of what we can and cannot do. We aren’t satisfied with “turn the other cheek” because we want to know every loophole and exception that exists. When we really get down to it we want Law, and Christ instead gave us freedom. We have been freed from the bounds of sin and law by Christ, but we still want to have a legalistic system of do’s and dont’s. In the gospels people tried constantly to trick Jesus into legalistic loopholes, condemning him for healing on the sabbath or for letting his disciples eat wheat when it was not the proper time. Jesus dismissed these trivialities and brought about a new perspective, one that focuses on the heart.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

– Matthew 22:36-40

Let’s be clear that the Bible doesn’t spell everything out for us. There’s no passage that’s
going to directly address birth control, stem cell research, cloning, nuclear bombs, high-fructose corn syrup, internet piracy, or tax evasion. But we have a pretty simple way of formulating Christian opinions about just about anything. Are we Loving God and Loving people? Are you seeking to honor God in the way you act and treat others, or are you trying to get away with as much as possible while still not breaking any rules?For those of us who have been forgiven and made clean through Christ, we have the Holy spirit as our guide to help us make difficult calls. What really makes a different is a heart change. If your heart’s end goal is

still self-centered and seeking to get away with as much as possible then I think it is time to re-examine yourself. If your heat is truly focused on loving God and others before yourself then he will make your path straight. You don’t have to logic yourself in or out of every situation, God will guide you if you let him. Coming into proper relationship with God and allowing Christ to be your center puts you in a much greater state to make moral judgements than memorizing a strict list of do’s and dont’s. Paul in Romans 3:19-20 states that laws and moral codes cannot make a man righteous, but instead they can only make him aware of his own shortcomings. Righteousness comes through Christ and we now belong to a new covenant based in forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Let us live as if we truly believe this.  Let us stop waving around complex moral codes as weapons like the Pharisees of old used to do, build themselves up and taring others down. Let us love God and Love people and let the scriptures guide us and help us as we seek to do this.

4) Be Mindful (Take Time To Appreciate God’s Gifts) 

url-3When is the last time you were truly grateful for all the wonderful things God has blessed you with? Have you ever stopped and thought about how your very existence makes you extremely fortunate. Consider how many parings of people it took throughout history to make sure you were born. Consider how many different children could had there been a different combination of seed and egg? The overwhelming number of people that could have been, were never born. Yet here you are, reading these words I type. Your won the lottery a million times over simply by the fact that you have been born. You get the privilege of experiencing the wonder of life and all that it has in store, the good and bad. How blessed you are.

Today is an amazing gift that you have been given and there are any number of beautiful and wonderful things all around you. Every day is a new beginning and a new opportunity to experience so many wonderful things. There is a world full of amazing, unique, and beautiful people that are only here for a short while, and yet you get to live with them and love with them. There are millions of things to do, to see, to study, to learn, and to achieve. There is new music to listen to, new friends to make, new foods to try, new places to wander, new things to discover, and new mysteries to uncover. Your mind itself is an amazing place to wander. You can study yourself, create art, think big new thoughts, or most amazingly of all have a chat with your maker.

This world is so vast, so massive, so beautiful, and so full that I often wonder how anyone ever finds the time to be bored. Gifts are everywhere and yet we refuse to see them. Try to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness and take some time to be mindful of what is around you. Realize all that you have, all that you are,  all that you could be, and all that you have been given.  Be grateful.

5) Be Open (Don’t Let Doctrine Imprison You)

url-1The other day I was speaking with one of my professors about the nature of miracles. He was of the opinion that the “miracles” of the Bible (if they occurred at all) could all be naturally explained. This professor is very strongly involved in the sciences, specifically physics and chemistry. Because my professor saw such beauty in the natural laws of the universe he was of the opinion that a perfect God would not violate the laws he set up just to prove a point to us. This debate was really just a friendly discussion, but at the end the professor told me that “In order to hold to what I believe is true, I just can’t accept your arguments.”

At the time I saw nothing wrong with this. The professor knew what he believed and he respected what I believed. He was considerate enough to entertain the notion that I could be right, but he ultimately rejected my doctrine to remain consistent. The problem here that I didn’t realize until just now is that the professor is imprisoned to his own doctrine so much that he is willing to reject what is out there for the sake of consistency.

Granted I’m sure I have been guilty of this as well. I am not exactly an open mind who is willing to turn on a dime, but perhaps when dealing with God we shouldn’t be so slow to consider possibilities. God is much bigger than I think any of us could possibly give him credit for, and I feel utterly confident that I am somehow so special that I have a perfect and complete understanding of God.

Now I firmly believe God is good. I believe God is not unknowable and that he does reveal himself and his nature through his creation and through Christ and the Holy Spirit. I’m mot advocating an unknowable God, but I am advocating a God that is a lot bigger than the human brain can fathom.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

– Isaiah 55:8-9

I truly believe we can have a relationship with the creator of the universe. I believe God is love and that the scriptures in the Bible do reveal parts of his loving nature and character. I also think we will never be able to fully encapsulate God in our doctrines. Doctrines are our human endeavor to find consistency and Theology is merely just human logic being applied to the almost impossible task of wrapping our brains around God. We shouldn’t, however get so caught up in our doctrines and theology that we put limitations on God and start dictating what we believe he can and cannot do. Let’s try to remember that we worship a God who is much bigger than we can imagine. If we are worshiping a God that is small enough to be fully grasped by the human mind is a God that mankind could have easily made up. Why do you think God requires faith? It’s not because he gets a kick out of making people put their logic aside, but rather it is because human logic has it’s limits. Be open and be in wonder of God, don’t try to force him to live in your tiny doctrines of human comprehension. Don’t let your theology become your idol.

6) Get A Sense Of Humor 

I have a pretty dry sense of humor, so maybe this won’t seem as funny to you guys as it is to me, but one time I was teaching a lesson on Hosea and I came across this image:

Hosea 2

I thought it was hilarious. It’s a clever little joke about one of the book’s major themes (Hosea’s cheating wife was like Israel’s abandonment of God) and so I worked it into my lesson. No one thought it was funny. It wasn’t a matter of the joke falling flat, but rather that no one thought I should be making fun of Hosea’s situation. I wasn’t trying to make any real statement here, I just wanted to bring some humor into the study.

Maybe this is predominately a Baptist problem, but I get the feeling that I’m not alone in saying that Christians could learn to laugh at ourselves a little better. Being in ministry, two of my favorite Church jokes are:

Q: “If you take a Baptist fishing, how do you keep him from drinking all your beer?”

A: “Bring another Baptist.”

Q: “How many Baptists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

A: “One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad.”

Would you believe that I offended people with these jokes? You don’t get much more tame than that. Now I know I’m cheesy as all get out, but I’d never have thought before I got into Ministry just how easily offended people in churches can get. Have you ever heard of a Buddhist getting offended? When was the last time Buddhists boycotted a business or got angry and went on the news to fuss about how offended they were about something. I can’t think of a time.

File:Buddha_Beipu

This is actually Budai, not Buddha.

Buddhists and Zen religions seem to have a good sense of humor about things. I’m pretty sure when most people think of the Buddha they think of the laughing fat man. While this isn’t really accurate, it does say something about humor.

Look at icons in Christian art and see how long it takes for you to find a picture of someone smiling. Christians don’t smile much in their art and honestly I’d like to see this change. Christianity deals a lot in suffering, which is reflected a lot in our art, but it also deals in joy and happiness.

We don’t have to take everything so seriously, and perhaps a part of turning the other cheek could involve maybe not getting so up tight about every little joke that comes our way. The Christian life is a joyous and fun existence. I think it might be a good idea to develop a sense of humor to show this. The passage that comes to my mind is at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians which reads:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

– Philippians 4:4-8

Basically, lets focus on the positive and lighten up a bit. There are times to be serious, but there are also times for thanksgiving and laughter. I’m pretty sure God didn’t create laughter so that we could squirm uneasily at jokes and become offended whenever we happen to be the butt of one.

As the author of Proverbs said, “A joyful heart is good medicine.”

Faith Within Reason: The Closed Minds of Free Thinkers

So one of the most hilariously mislabeled groups of all time are the “Free Thinkers.” You may know them by different labels, but the best way to identify a “free-thinker” is that they will deny any claim that cannot be backed up by empirical evidence. So heavily confined to their own logic are they that the will outright deny any reality that contradicts their ability to comprehend and logically sort out. Free Thinking is ironically one of the most binding, limiting, restraining, and mentally crippling schools of though. I can hardly think of a more close minded view than the one that says “If I cannot understand, it cannot be so.” This worship and deifying of the human mind is not only limiting in its ability to fully appreciate and comprehend life, but it is also extremely (and ironically) un-logical in its approach to denying the miraculous.

I always come across the same two arguments when ever I find myself in a discussion with a free-thinker. They love these arguments wield them like faith smashing sticks ready to bludgeon any feeble religious mind they come across. It is always kind of humorous to see these arguments flipped on their head and see their own weapons of choice used to poke holes in their own philosophy. Let me explain:

Argument 1: 

  • Premise: Those that testified to the miracles in scripture are unreliable because they are superstitious and unscientific.
  • Reasoning: They are superstitious an unscientific because they attest to miracles.
  • The Problem: If testifying to a miracle disqualifies one form being credible, how then could one credibly attest to a miracle if one were encountered?

In case that didn’t make sense, the “free-thinker” who uses these arguments to deny the miraculous creates a circular vacuums that makes it impossible for anyone to ever attest to a miracle. Testifying to a miracle makes you lose credibility, therefore no one can credibly attest to a miracle. This is not a very open-minded approach to the proposed question of miracles because it already presupposes that the denier is correct and that the one making the claim is false, as well as setting up a fallacy in which the one making the claim can never move around. It is really only a few steps above sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “I’m not listening because you are stupid and I am not.”

Counter Argument 1: 

  • Premise: Those that testified to love are unreliable because they are superstitious and unscientific.
  • Reasoning: They are superstitious an unscientific because they attest to love.
  • The Problem: If testifying to love disqualifies one form being credible because these properties cannot be empirically tested, how then could one credibly attest to love for those who have  never encounter it?

You see, there are many things in life from theoretical physics to the binding love of a husband and wife that are beyond the empirical. People denied the existence of the Okapi for many years though many people had claimed to have seen it. Why was it denied? Because every credible person knew that no such creature existed. It was clearly the in the realm of fantasy, and yet we now know that it does in fact exist. Miracles by nature can only be observed by those who happen to be there to observe them, and they cannot be empirically explained and prove or else they cease to be miracles. This is not the only argument, however, that is used to attack the miraculous events described in scripture.

Argument 2:

  • Premise: Those that testify to the miracles in scripture are unreliable because they were looking for miracles and were not observing subjective.
  • Reasoning: Those that look for miracles will find them, though they would not have found them if they were not looking for them.
  • The Problem: If looking for something disqualifies one from being credible then are the only credible discoveries those that are found by pure chance and happenstance?

Events of a miraculous nature have been testified throughout human existence from our very earliest records. Some miracles have more documentation to them than many ancient events we consider facts, and even today accounts of miracles in day-to-day life are not unheard of. I myself have witnessed several “miraculous” events in my years on this earth, but of course none of these are acceptable to the free-thinker.  The common dismissal of these claims is to dismiss the ancient man as a superstitious creature who lacked scientific understanding of the universe, but when one questions why we are to assume ancient man was superstitious the answer is usually that he attested to miracles. This logic is used even today every time a miraculous event occurs, one cannot attest to a miracle without being labeled superstitious and stupid based on the presupposition that belief in miracles is superstitious and stupid. This creates a circular logical fallacy where if one was to witness a miracle one could never attest to it because by attesting to the validity of the miracle one was also dismissing his own credibility.

To those people I raise this counter argument:

Counter Argument 2:

  • Premise: Those that testify to the existence of scientific laws are unreliable because they were looking for scientific laws and were not observing subjectively.
  • Reasoning: Those that look for laws of nature will find them, though they would not have found them if they were not looking for them.
  • The Problem: If one never supposed that the universe was bound by laws of nature then would have never discovered any of the laws of physics, chemistry, or many of the mathematical principles.

Is the assumption that the universe is somehow innately bound by physically consistent laws of nature really more logical than the assumption that God could involve himself in history through miraculous means. The only reason I can find that one is readily accepted and one is so cautiously denied is because one is testable and the other is not. We cannot invoke a miracle any time we wish, but to test whether gravity is consistent, one only needs to drop something from a height. To assume that because something is not testable it cannot be true is scientism, which is one of the most closed-minded views a man could take. To assume that his senses and logical reasoning are the only masters of truth in the universe is arrogance to the highest degree. This also becomes problematic when one raises the question of why the universe is bound to certain physical laws of nature. The scientismist (if that is even a world) would most likely attempt to dismiss the question without providing an answer while the monotheist could point to a grand designer.

Notice I am not writing this to attack science, but scientism. Science is a wonderful thing that explores the inner workings of the grand design. Scientism is the denial of all empirically unprovable aspects of life. Where science would look at a miracle and say “We cannot prove, test, or recreate that instance” scientism would look at a miracle and say “This cannot be!”

So why do I claim to believe in the miraculous events attributed to Christ? Because I find the testimony of these events both credible and highly likely. After Christ’s crucifixion the twelve men who had followed Christ (that were said to have run and hid during his death and burial) somehow became so convinced that they had seen the resurrected Christ that they spread his gospel all over the world. These men would rather die horrific deaths (which almost all of them did) rather than deny the truth of the risen Lord. This is not something one does on a whim, these men believed with all their heart and soul that Christ was risen and sin defeated.

Look a the life of Saul of Tarsus who by his own account and the account of Luke was a persecutor of the faith and a killer of Christians. Saul has a miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus that convinced him that the people he was so eagerly killing were actually the proclaimers of the true gospel of God. After changing his name to Paul this “Jew among Jews” whom had lived by the Torah and avidly fought against the “heresy” of Christianity, now became its biggest avocate. He planted churches all across the world and did a complete 180 turn form a life of self-righteous legalism to a servant like devotion to God and an advocate of the spiritual freedom found in Christ.

In the first few centuries Christians were fed to lions in colosseums, crucified in the emperor’s gardens, and burned alive or stoned for their refusal to deny the miraculous and life changing power of Christ. Even today there are thousands (possibly millions) of Christians all over the globe who would rather die than deny the miraculous and radical God-man who was Jesus the Christ. Considering that only around 3% of the world’s population outright denies the existence of the supernatural, maybe it is time for Free Thinkers to free up their minds a bit.

 

Flatland: A Short Post About Understanding Human Limitation

Have you ever heard of a novella known as Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott? It’s a really interesting concept of a world that exists in only two dimensions. It is the story of the inhabitants of a universe that is completely flat where the notion of anything with depth is utterly foreign to them. The story features a square who comes in contact with a strange sphere that exists in three dimension. At first the square thinks the sphere is merely a circle who is pulling tricks on him since the only part of the sphere that square can see is a growing or shrinking circle that exists in two dimensions as seen here:
flatland1

Despite all his efforts the sphere can neither explain nor convince to the square that the third dimension exists or what the third dimension is. When the sphere moves in and out of the second dimension the square thinks he is a magician doing tricks to make himself grow and shrink. When the sphere rolls across the dimension the square can feel him, but not see him and does not believe. When the sphere looks onto the flat dimension of square’s house he is able to tell square what is in all the rooms before square is able to open the doors:
url

Eventually, though square cannot even begin to conceive of the third dimension, he comes to believe it exists and wonders what other dimensions exist that he could never imagine.

It’s an interesting concept that was meant to open up people’s minds, but I see it as quite an elaborate and easily understood way to discuss human limitation. We perceive space, depth, and time, but any other dimensions are out of our range of perception. Even in this universe we inhabit we are limited to experience only in five senses (taste, touch, smell, feel, and sound). Just as a blind person is handicapped in perceiving and experiencing the universe, so might we be without knowing it. Had no human being ever tasted could it imagine what it would be like to taste a steak?

So when limited beings like square encounter something beyond our comprehension it seems normal to assume something is amiss. Square rarely questions the notion that something could exist that he cannot see.  How silly we are to stay in the mindset of square, to think that because we cannot sense or understand something it cannot be. Until square met sphere he thought he was the ultimate judge of truth in the universe, but he soon became aware of his own limitations. So too must we become aware of our limitations and not be so hasty to dismiss the impossible.

If God exists he is surely much more complicated and transcendent than sphere, and if he does exist I can guarantee that our ability to grasp the eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, alpha and omega in all his splendor will be much more beyond us than it was for square to understand sphere.  It’s something to think about.

You Are Quite Absurd: Kierkegaard, Camus, Nietzsche, King Solomon, and The Quest For Purpose

Have you ever actually considered the possibility that you serve no purpose whatsoever. Has it ever occurred to you that you came into being by chance and regardless of what you do in life you will not have achieved anything that will be of use to you the moment you die. Has it crossed your mind that more likely than not you are going to be completely forgotten within a few generations, and that even if you become some great hero or villain the memory of you will eventually fade into myth and then into nothingness as if you never walked the earth at all… Quite depressing isn’t it. Welcome to the world of Absurdist Philosophy.

In philosophy an “Absurdist” is one who recognizes the conflict between the human tendency to seek meaning and value in life alongside the human inability to find any. Let’s face the facts Jack, you are a tiny little speck of carbon, on a tiny little planet, in a tiny little solar system, in an outer rim galaxy residing in the  boondocks of a universe that (as far as we know) is simply floating around in a sea of infinite nothing. You can never hope to be more than that and since medicine can only go so far you will only truly “exist” for maybe 70-100 years (if your lucky) before you cease to be forever.

Strangely enough, human beings have been constantly searching for truth and meaning in a universe that by all logic has none. So during this small time gap that you have to live you really only have four options:

  1. Embrace Death: Upon realizing that life truly has no meaning, purpose, or real reason to continue other than it just does one can simply vote not to participate anymore. I’m not condoning suicide at all, but unfortunately this is the response many who come to realize “the Absurd” choose in order to escape this game. It’s definitely the darkest option available.
  2. Ignore The Absurd Reality: This is the most popular option, but also one of the most unsatisfying. You can simply ignore the fact that you are meaningless, insignificant, and fading fast into oblivion. You are perfectly free to go about your daily grind of work, rest, pleasure, and whatever else floats your boat ignoring the ever looming truth that everything you love and work for will one day be a pile of nothing quickly forgotten and destroyed.
  3. Embrace The Absurd Reality: This is the philosophy of Albert Camus which can be read about in “The Myth of Sisyphus”.  In short, if one embraces the absurd he can eliminate all moral constraints and  accept that meaninglessness as inevitable. If purpose exists then we cannot find it and so in the mean time we should just make up our own purpose for ourselves. Camus argued that doing this leads to a true freedom and an ability to live out your life unhindered. Camus would argue that purpose is what you make it and that true freedom comes in being able to decide for yourself what is true and what is not.
  4. Embrace “Spiritual” Purpose: This is the philosophy of Kierkegaard (and this author) which argues that there is, in fact, a purpose and meaning to all of this but it cannot be found in the physical realm. It is the rather unscientific belief in the existence of a reality and truth beyond The Absurd. Now this belief does require one to accept the intangible and empirically unproven (a.k.a. “Faith”) but it is the only way one can ever truly hold on to anything in life as being eternal, lasting, true, or meaningful. It is the only way one can ever fully fulfill the unquenchable desire for purpose.

Now needless to say these views are often in conflict with each other. Kierkegaard though that “embracing the Absurd” was a form of madness that leads one to rage against purpose rather than seeking it as man clearly was meant to. Camus, on the other hand, saw religion and the embracing of spiritual purpose as “philosophical suicide.” Then there were those like Nietzsche who look down on the notion of “purpose” as a tool for the weak who are too afraid to truly “look into the void.”

For those of you keeping score at home it breaks down a little something like this:

Is there such a thing as meaning, purpose, or value: 

  • Kierkegaard: Yes, but one can only find this through faith in a Higher Power. Logic cannot find it on its own.
  • Camus: Maybe, but we can’t find it so we might as well go with whatever feels right to you.
  • Nietzsche: No.
**If you want a more elaborate description please feel free to read up on these three, I’m oversimplifying for the sake of time and space.** 

What is interesting is that “the Absurd” was a problem that scripture dealt with long before Kierkegaard, Camus, or Nietzsche ever set foot on this earth. King Solomon himself (the alleged wisest man on earth) also struggled with this:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

““Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

– King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1)

King Solomon was all about that doom and gloom stuff. You see King Solomon struggled with the idea of purpose just as we have. If you continue to read Ecclesiastes you see that he found everything from pleasure, to wisdom, to wealth, and honor utter pointless in the face of what would later be called “the Absurd.” He knew his time was limited and fleeting, and he could find no reason or purpose in anything man could do or achieve.

Eventually he comes to the conclusion that in the end no man knows what purpose God has laid out before him:

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
– Ecclesiastes 8:16-17

It’s a really depressing book when we get right down to it, but in the end the only things that King Solomon could think worthy of our time is to enjoy the work and life that God gave us, because regardless of any reason we can determine were put here for some purpose.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

Or at least that’s what wise old King Solomon deduced. Christianity offers a little more in the way of purpose than what King Solomon envisioned. We just so happen to exist on the other opposite side of the cross, and we have already begun to see God enacting his plan for the renewal of this world.

King Solomon would have never been able to dream that God would come down and take the weight of sin away from us. He never would have been able to comprehend that one day the gap between God and man would be bridged and that all of history has been moving back towards restoration ever since the fall of man.

Solomon would have never have thought to hope for renewal, resurrection, and restoration of all things to their former glory as we understand them today. As Christians we can look “the Absurd” in the eye with full confidence knowing that all is not in vain. Where Nietzsche stared into the void and saw the void staring back, we can stare into the void and catch a tiny glimpse of the mind of a great creator and planner that has more in store for us than we have dreamed.

God is ultimately glorified and we are steadily moving towards a day where pain and suffering will cease to be and all of creation will exist in perfect harmony as when it first began.

The Christian ultimately finds his place in the universe absurd, not because he is a purposeless creature seeking a purpose he cannot obtain, but because God so loved sinners that he would take suffering upon himself for our sake. God does not love us because we are good, but he is Good and as a result loves us and has a purpose for us. We are not alone, nor are we abandoned. We have a higher purpose that exists outside the mental capacity of men. It is not a conclusion hard to make when one realizes that:

1. We deeply desire purpose and meaning.

2. In spite of our best efforts we cannot seem to find it.

Or as a wiser man than I once put it:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

-C.S. Lewis

Lets Talk Opium: A Philosophical and Theological Slug Fest!

So I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the famous quote of Karl Marx “Religion is the opium of the people.”  It is arguably the most famous atheist quote of all time, and though it is a misquote it still manages to become circulated pretty often among Communists, Socialists, and Anti-Theist circles. The message seems clear, Religion is simply a tool used to control people and make them dormant. Opium, after all, is still used today as a pain remover in most medical practices. The original quote doesn’t stray far from the purpose of the popular misquote:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
– Karl Marx

You can see that the original quote needed to be shortened a bit, because when used in its proper context it tends to lose its sting. In this version, religion is nothing more than a means for oppressed and purposeless creatures to find solace and comfort. Religion in this view is a means to heal the pain of the reality many find themselves.

While this is a very morbid way to look at Religion, it is actually not as harsh as many have made it out to be. If we truly are, as Marx stated, creatures of a heartless world living in a soulless condition then I’ll freely admit that I am clinging on to hope and purpose with all I have. If in the end Marx is right about Religion, then the choice you make to accept or deny religion really doesn’t hold any weight. It seems the worst thing a religious person could be would be someone clinging to a false hope, and the greatest thing an atheist could be is a creature living in a heartless and soulless world that has simply become aware of its own insignificance.

But what if Religion is not the Opium in this allegorical scenario? What if it was the Atheist who was the Opiate hooked on a false reality and seeking solace through denial?  This is the view of the Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz who replied to Marx with the following words:

“A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”
― Czesław Miłosz

Now we are faced with the strange conflict of views, two ideals each convinced the other is no more than an Opiate abuser trying to deny reality through a comforting fantasy they have crafted. The only difference is where Marx’s version places the Atheist and the Religious on the same level (both pointless beings living in a pointless world)  Miłosz’s scenario illustrates the severity of the situation from the opposite point of view. If the Atheist is correct then we all run around on this little planet for a while and then are no more, but if the Religious person is correct then this time we were given will have been of much greater importance than we have dreamed.

The French philosopher Pascal, summed it up this way:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….

…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

– Pascal

Now Pascal has basically made religion a gambling game with a cost vs reward angle applied (of which I am not a fan) but he does make some very valid points in favor of why Religion may in the long run prove to be the safer of the two sides. Now those that hold to the Atheist point of view will often counter with something called the “Atheist’s Wager” which seeks to map out all the possible outcomes of living a good/bad life paired with the existence or lack of a benevolent god. It goes as follows:

  • You may live a good life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • You may live a good life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • You may live a good life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
  • You may live a good life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a positive legacy to the world; your gain is finite.
  • You may live an evil life and believe in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
  • You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
  • You may live an evil life and believe in a god, but no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.
  • You may live an evil life without believing in a god, and no benevolent god exists, in which case you leave a negative legacy to the world; your loss is finite.

Now while this seems all fine and dandy, it doesn’t really fit very well into Christian thought (which I obviously subscribe to) because it hinges itself on the presupposition that living a good life is the standard upon which a soul is judged. While this may be the way we as humans judge ourselves, those of Christian mind find this view lacking.

Christian though reverses this logic and instead asks the question of “Why do we suppose that we deserve heaven?” Now if heaven is truly eternal and contains no evil whatsoever, it would seem that in order to be worthy of such a prise one would need to also be completely lacking in evil. On this standard each person fails because, as most people eventually realize, no man is fully good or fully evil. Each of us is a various mixed bag of redeemable and shameful qualities. Are we to suppose that being a good person some of the time deserves eternal reward?

It is because of this that the Atheist’s wager falls apart in Christian perspective because no amount of goodness makes us worthy of eternal bliss, it can be assumed that if any man obtains eternal bliss it is due completely upon the mercy and grace of God. This thought is accepted by Christianity and it is believed that God gives such grace and mercy freely to those whom accept it. In this scenario (as Jesus said) it is only God who is good.

In the end one of these views will prove to be right. Either we will all perish into nothingness, leaving only a fleeting legacy of our deeds behind us, or we will go on to face something more. It’s a belief that can be put off only so long before a man must make his choice. But who is the opiate, and who sees the world for what it is?  This question is ultimately up to you.

I have made my choice and I’m siding with religion on this one. With religion this chaotic world I live in begins to make sense and this strange desire for purpose and meaning become fulfilled. With religion I can strive for something and grasp on to something real, absolute, and lasting. The universe makes sense for me in the presence of a living God, and for those who believe it does not seem such a far-fetched notion that there does exist something absolute and true:

“The atheist can appeal to nothing [philosophically] absolute, nothing objectively true for all people, it is just mere opinion enforced by might. The Christian appeals to a standard outside himself/herself in which truth and qualitative values can be made sense of.”

-Peter Huff

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?.. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

-C.S. Lewis

Then again perhaps it is I who is taking the Opium of religion to ease myself through this painful and utterly coincidental journey of life. Perhaps it is all hopes, dreams, and hog-wash that I indulge in so that I never face the reality of my insignificance. Even if this were the case, which I truly doubt is, would I be better off living without my religion? Would I be a better person if I truly believed that after I am dead nothing I did will have any significance on me, that I am here for no greater purpose than something I can fantasize or dream up, than I am a coincidence that occurred for no other reason than that I did and that I only continue to live because life for some reason wishes to continue (though there is on ultimate reason or goal to be achieved). Would nihilism or hedonism really suit me better? I think not.

My religion is my grand love affair. It spurs me on to improve myself and to selflessly give for others. It is my hope, my dreams, and my greatest passion. It is my all-consuming fire and my light that guides my way. If all of this is founded upon nothing more than lies and false hopes, then I can still think of no better way to spend my short life here on earth than living in the hope and beauty of the reality of a loving God.