When It Hurts Too Much

One of the advantages of being solely responsible for the content of a blog is having to answer to no one for deviating from the announced plan. I expect to return tomorrow to thoughts regarding Lent and the journey of Jesus toward his death in Jerusalem.

But today I simply offer reflection on the fragility of our lives in this world. I am not speaking only of the more obvious meaning of that term, such as its application to times when accidents or illness claim or seriously alter life. I am also thinking of the fragile nature of the mind and spirit of a person. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. It is not difficult to marvel at the latter; we do so when we are in awe of the abilities of mind and body to create and to heal, to plan and to execute plans. The more we learn of the intricacies of our own physical structure the more the wonder leads us to praise.

What of the “fearfully” part? Is it a reference to our being subject to physical breakdown, either through age or sudden catastrophe? Is it that the same intricate inner workings of the complex systems that make up our bodies can turn and work against our health, rather than for it? Is it a reminder to do what we can to guard our bodies, given the precious nature of the life they hold, not only for ourselves, but for those who share life with us? And what about those others, with whom we have relationships of many kinds, all of which are themselves subject to both healthy and unhealthy expression, bringing both great joy and great heartache?

We are told that God knows our frame, that He has not forgotten that we are but dust; he knows our thoughts from afar. Both of these are truths of which we need to be reminded, as is Paul’s warning that no one knows the thoughts or heart of another person, rendering judgments thereon as words we are unfit to pronounce. That thought continues with the clear statement that it is to our own master that we stand or fall–and that He is able to make us stand. And that ability–no, that promise–to make us stand is not something we undo by succumbing to the pressures of life.

Few of us, though perhaps more of us than what is readily apparent, find life so overwhelming that we seriously entertain thoughts of taking our own lives. Why would a person, especially one who has a solid hope in Christ as sufficient for all of our needs, be in so desperate a position? How would someone who brought encouragement and the blessing of faith fail to find it at a critical point? Was medication intended to maintain that fearfully delicate balance in the brain responsible for its undoing instead? We don’t know. And we will not know. But there are some things we can know.

We know that life hurts at times; sometimes it hurts unbearably, in ways never to become visibly manifested even to those closest and dearest. And no one is immune to things which they would never foresee happening to them. Even the best efforts at mitigation are not always successful because of the complex sort of beings we are; we are not reducible to a formula or equation.

We also know, or should know, that for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation. When Paul writes of the great Christian hope at the close of the same eighth chapter of Romans, he tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing in all creation. His power to hold surpasses the power of confusion, delusion, and anything else in the created order. The depths and heights of our experience of living, always clouded when compared to the perfect vision that yet awaits us, cannot separate us from the hope of Easter. Nor can the sadness, the temporary rocking of our world, or the fearful yet wonderful nature of our being in this world. For now we groan; tomorrow we shall yet rejoice.

Hawking: No God Necessary

Well, there you have it; or at least we will have it on September 9, when Stephen Hawking’s new book is released. According to the newest theory, nothing spontaneously creates something, which becomes the universe. There is, therefore, no need to invoke a god or gods as the ultimate explanation of things. This is a bit of a departure from Hawking’s view in A Brief History of Time, in which the door was left somewhat ajar for the possibility of a creator.

I’m not a scientist. I have read more than the average person in the field of the interplay of science and theology; but I haven’t studied all the requisite fields of knowledge to render a scientific opinion on the merits of Hawking’s proposal. I do not know, therefore, whether it actually is scientifically possible for matter to appear out of, literally, nowhere. Color me skeptical. But even if the possibility of such as origin could be established, it does not automatically negate other options. It would be, at best, one of the possible causes of the universe, not the only logical option.

In my reading of science-theology dialogs, it seems that something is consistently missed by those of atheist leanings. Perhaps in part because of their drive to find data-based answers for all beliefs, many in the scientific community believe that Christians (and other theists) believe in God because we find Him necessary to explain the world. God, according to this prevailing attitude, is the answer to why there is a world at all; and the further belief is that such a conclusion comes from the investigation of the available data. So when one refuses to search all of that data, and in fact dismisses it as irrelevant to ultimate questions, the scientist can only conclude that believers are deluded, obscurantist, and just plain stupid.

But is that really the way belief is established? Do we insist on a personal Creator because we refuse to face “the facts” uncovered by empirical investigation? The God of the Bible is not the conclusion of mankind’s search for origins, which then became the property of a privileged (male) class, which in turn wrote the stories and the rules in such a way as to secure their own privileged position. From the very beginning, God is the one who reveals Himself, not the intricacies of the natural order. And that continues to be the case for people of faith. God addresses us, makes us aware of His presence with an invitation to find meaning–not just the meaning of a natural order, but meaning for life and relationship, now and beyond the observable order.

The fact that the solution to our quest for meaning and a plausible explanation of the universe cohere with one another provides something Hawking’s proposal cannot give. It doesn’t simply explain why there is an “us” and a place for us; it explains us.

Lost: Our National Story

It’s too difficult to stand in the middle any longer.

That, apparently, is the conclusion of three allegedly centrist Democratic Senators, including the prominent voices of Christopher Dodd (Connecticut) and Evan Bayh (Indiana).  These two, along with Bryon Dorgen of North Dakota, have recently announced that they will not seek reelection to another term in November.  Bayh was most explicit in citing reasons for his voluntary departure; they center on the unrelenting pressure from his party’s left wing to vote in favor of all pieces of their legislative agenda.

Coupled with a corresponding state of affairs in the Republican Party, where conservative voices continually sound the alarm against those who wander from the straight and narrow to make common cause with Democrats, one wonders how either agenda, left- or right-wing, will ever become law.  Even more, one is left to wonder about the grounds upon which either or any policy would prevail.

My interest is not to mitigate; as spelled out previously in this blog, I am far more concerned with looking at our common life from the perspective of the biblical narrative than in promoting purely political solutions to our various ills.  But it is worthwhile asking whether we are capable of recovering the kind of common story of ourselves as citizens of the once United States which is needed in order to negotiate our differences.  There have always been different readings and renderings of the story.  But until recent shifts in philosophy and historiography, there was also an expectation that we could come to a common understanding of the truth (unappreciated word that it is) about the country we share.

But in a different time–the present–there is widespread disinterest if not hostility toward the idea that there is such a truth to be found.  Our political agendas therefore turn not on what a vision of that truth requires, but on what we desire the story to look like.  And since no one story can claim to be closer to a truth that does not exist, we are left with nothing but power politics, under which those who have the power make the rules.  While that is a common enough standard through the history of nations, it is also precisely the condition this republic was carefully designed to avoid.

I do not believe for a moment that it is coincidental or insignificant that the nation’s crafting was based on an explicit recognition that there is a higher order of things to which all government is answerable.  It is where truth dwells, independent of yet judging our attempts to read it into our law.  We get it wrong; we struggle to reach in practice even the contingent expressions we do arrive at in principle.  But without the sense of and taste for that truth, grounded in “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” we will face a difficult, chaotic future.

Wonder if that’s what Evan Bayh had in mind?  We all should.

Where Does the Bible Live?

I’ve heard it enough times now to have it threatening to live under my skin.  So I’m going to deal with it before I get a really bad rash.  Depending upon where you live, you may also have seen and heard a tv commercial for a Christian theater, where the currently running production is being billed as the place where “the Bible come to life!”

I have no ill will toward the producers, actors, and musicians who create such productions, nor toward the thousands of people who attend and are “blessed” thereby.  What I take exception to is the claim itself.  No theatrical production–and for that matter no sermon or biblical exposition–can pull off the feat of bringing the Bible to life.  On one hand, it never died, and will not until the Lord returns.  On the other hand, however, the only meaningful way for the Bible to come to life, at least in a truly transformative way, is for the Christian community to act it out.  Not on a stage, not in a church building or orchestrated worship service.  But in life as the people of God interact with the people and powers of the world in ways that are directed by the story the Bible tells.  In business, in politics, in education, in daily interactions of all sorts.

What some who attend the shows referenced above mean by speaking of the Bible coming to life is that they have had an experience through which they “know” a given piece of the Bible better.  They have a firmer grasp of its meaning.  But is that so?  Could it be that “knowing” the Bible better comes by “doing” it, living it, changing one’s life patterns and relationships accordingly?  And that we deceive ourselves by supposing that we “know” any biblical “truths” without doing so?  Comments welcome.

What Good Is a Story?

Much recent discussion in Christian circles has centered on the concept of narrative as the best way to understand the biblical message.  This site is in agreement with that basic premise, as are a wide array of much more well known and widely accepted sites, books, speakers, etc.  Narrative as message avoids, at least temporarily, some of the troublesome issues involved with seeing truth as primarily propositional, making it more conducive to conversation in a post-foundationalist philosophical world; it acknowledges the primary means by which all cultures allegedly understand themselves and through which they encounter the world.

Describing the core of Christianity as God’s movements from creation to human fall to redemption in Christ and finally toward consummation certainly accomplishes those purposes.  In so doing it presents a critique and evaluation of other narratives; and, as Lamin Sanneh so provocatively states in Whose Religion Is Christianity?, it does so without the intervention of western readings of that biblical narrative.

Yet encouraging story comparison, getting equal time, and being favorable to philosophical currents cannot comprise the reason for an emphasis on the Christian story.  The story is of limited benefit if it does not offer hope to the world immediately confronting us, the people with whom we share space in an uncertain time, suffering in their bodies and minds, failing in their marriages and businesses.  Narrative does little of value if we do not live and preach such hope.  The hope comes from telling the story in such a way that we see this God not simply as the author of the story, but as the prime actor throughout all its pages, especially the one we are writing in the present.  It’s the presence of the author to which eyes must be directed.  The hopeful, redemptive presence of the redeeming, consummating God, seen by eyes of faith, proclaimed by preachers of His Living Word, witnessed to by believers in all walks of life.

Where do you see hope today?  I’d like to hear about it in comments.  We’re oh so good at recognizing the poverty of the world’s default story; where can we point in a hopeful direction?  How?