The ‘Error’ of Evidence

Confession time: I like EWTN.

Specifically, when I’m out after 9 p.m., I like to listen to EWTN’s open-line call-in show, where a priest or other host answers listerners’ doctrinal questions. The perspective often is fascinating, as the questions and answers frequently focus on Catholic doctrines with which I’m either totally or mostly unfamiliar. The show also comes from a conservative, even fundamentalist background, which leads to plenty of eyebrow-raising while I’m running whatever errand I’m on.

One of those moments came the other night, when the host – I don’t remember her name – piggybacked on Pope Benedict XVI’s Sunday sermon on insincerity. Benedict called insincerity a mark of the devil, apparently using Judas’ failure to stop following Jesus after he stopped believing in him as an example because Jesus calls Judas a devil in John 6. Let’s set aside the fact that Jesus also calls Peter the devil, and that insincerity is perhaps the least of the reasons Jesus would call Judas a devil – betrayal, hypocrisy, lack of concern about the poor all spring to mind.

The host used the point to jump into a talk about people who teach error, even if they do so sincerely. And she listed several of the things people teach that she – and the Catholic Church – find erroneous. Here are some of those, as best I can remember:

  • That the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God
  • That abortion is not murder
  • That gay people should have marriage rights
  • That oral contraceptives do not lead to breast cancer.

And that’s where the eyebrow went up.

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One Year and Counting

Today is the first day of class, which means I’ve now been in grad school for a full year. I have no idea how that happened.

It also means I’ve been blogging for more than a year – I started this thing in late July 2011, and here I am, somehow still trucking along. In celebration, here are the top 10 posts by pageviews this blog has had since its inception. If you’re newish, maybe you’ll find something you like; if you’ve been here from the beginning, thanks! Maybe you’ll find something you missed or forgot you liked. Or maybe the fact that these posts are the most viewed here will make you once again wonder why you’ve wasted so much time reading this blog.

Without further ado:

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The Theology of Paul (Ryan)

A friend asked me on Facebook the day Mitt Romney tabbed Paul Ryan to be his running mate in the presidential race what my “personal, theology-based thoughts” were on the pick.

So here goes.

As prologue, I recommend reading some of my posts on Amos from earlier this summer. Should you not have the time or inclination, I’ll sum them up this way: A reading of the prophets in a christocentric manner makes clear that God calls Christians living in society to above all care for others – and have particular care for the voiceless, marginalized, powerless and impoverished among us. That’s probably not terribly controversial. But the American system of government is set up in such a way that every Christian by virtue of the vote is a member of the powerful, and that we therefore are judged by God on how we exercise that power – either for or against the powerless.

This does not mean that we create a “Christian nation” that outlaws all the vices God doesn’t like. Doing so does nothing to help the powerless. It doesn’t mean that we legislate a so-called Christian morality and impose our chosen moral lifestyles on those who do not accept them; Jesus didn’t do that, and the prophets say next to nothing about personal morality. What it means is that we Christians, all of us members of the government and more so we Christians who seek and hold public office, have a duty to govern in the interests of the voiceless and powerless.

It should not be surprising, moreover, that governing in this way is a proven winner. America’s economy has grown most when inequality has been minimized (note I don’t say eliminated), and its growth has been tepid over the past decade, when inequality has skyrocketed. By “inequality,” I mean the gap between the economically powerful and powerless, which is now at alarmingly high levels.

All of that means that by voting or by holding office, Christians exert considerable pressure on the political system to mold our society in the ways we choose. We can mold that society in a way that is in line with the call of God for societies to be just, or we can do so in a way that enriches the powerful at the expense of the powerless – a condition against which Amos, Isaiah and Jesus, to name just a few, railed.

What kind of society does Paul Ryan envision?

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Joining Jesus’ Story

Right on the heels of my post on Monday about rethinking our approach to salvation, Daniel Kirk said something very similar, raising an issue of scholarship I’ve mentioned here before: the question over whether Paul talks about salvation through faith in Christ or salvation through the faith of Christ.

One of those is the foundation for classic soterian thought – have faith in Christ, and you’re in, no followup necessary – the other calls us to a real, lasting response.

As Kirk writes: “The idea that we’re justified by our own faith in Christ is part of a larger way of construing Christian identity in terms of believing the right things about God.”

On the other hand, if our justification is completely outside of our ability, then – perhaps counterintuitively – the question becomes: How do we respond to this overwhelming act of grace?

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The Importance of Doing

I’m powering my way through The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight – trying to finish it before I start reading for my class next week – and as I reach the end, a lot of the points at which McKnight spends much of the book hinting finally become clearer.

One of the nagging questions as McKnight tries to sketch out a more apostolic gospel than our modern obsession with who’s-in, personal-salvation-based Christianity is: Well, where does “doing” fit in? At some point, you have to do something to be saved, right?

Which is probably part of the problem. When you – as I suspect most or all of us did – grow up with the specter of hell hanging over those who aren’t “saved,” it makes being saved the important thing. You need assurance of salvation, and if you’ve sad the magic words – the sinner’s prayer – then you’re OK. You’re saved. Even though we talk about how we can’t do anything to be saved, we all have to do something, even if it’s simply saying a few words. That way, no matter what else happens, you aren’t going to hell, and that’s what’s important.

Never mind that Jesus didn’t seem to think that’s what was the most important. Never mind that the apostles preaching the gospel after Jesus didn’t seem to think so either. As McKnight notes,

Neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God’s wrath when they evangelize in Acts, nor do they describe the saving story of Jesus as an escape from hell.

Which isn’t to deny a judgment. Just that it’s not emphasized, and it’s certainly not the central part of the gospel message the way it is today.

But recognizing this intellectually is a far cry from being able to recognize deep down, where it’s hard to shake the fear that if we’re wrong, we might just end up in the flaming depths for all eternity. So while McKnight details how Jesus and Peter and Paul described the gospel as the Story of Israel being completed in the story of the Messiah and Lord, Jesus, I still couldn’t help but think: Where does salvation come in?

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Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

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These Books Will Change Your Life! (Or, More Important, Your Faith)

Apologies once again for the light posting last week. The family was out of town, which meant late nights for me and the consequent late mornings, as well.

But last week also featured the semiannual – or a little more often – tradition for us grad schoolers: The Ordering of the Textbooks. I’m not sure if anyone else gets as excited as I do about ordering textbooks, but let’s just say it’s definitely a highlight in my year. “You mean I have to order these books about a subject in which I am intensely interested? Well, if you insist …”

I’ve now been in graduate school for a year. A lot has changed in those 12 months, and a lot of it has been because of the books assigned by my professors. Some of the best, most challenging, most worldview-changing have been: Continue reading