November 25, 2015

By grace alone

As a child I felt the power that imbued all things
(I did not know your name
                but felt your breath in the March wind
Smelled and saw and knew you in the rotation of the seasons
In the crisp light of the stars
                and in eerie light of fireflies
In the clatter of dry leaves
                and in the cool
                                                silence of the snow
In all things
Illuminating to me in the magical intensity of sundown
High cloud spread across heaven
                and insect singing down below
All alive
From the moon
                to the smallest young green leaf
                (When was it that I lost you
                and forgot?

When was it I that I lost that light within me
Trading it for a mixture
                of intractable hungers
                and withered
                                shrunken facts?
                (When I began to think myself the center of the universe
                                and ceased to breathe?
                                (When I became an island
                                                in a cold sea far from home)

Into that darkness I have gone unknowingly and quietly
With the approval of my peers
(but I have gone nonetheless)
Little by little
                in the way that all things freeze in your absence
                                (I have lived the long decades as a fitful corpse
                                lost in my dark thoughts
                                gnawed by demons seen and unseen
                                                (I have moved restlessly
                                                and stood still restlessly
                                eaten and slept and dreamed restlessly

A thoughtless animal on the fringes of a thoughtless herd
                (As they have groaned
                I have groaned

                As they have feared and shivered and despised
                I too have feared
                                and shivered
                                                and despised
I have been as nothing
                as a hungry mole among the roots of giant trees
                consuming the days I could not see
                and as certainly consumed by them

For this is the fallen world in all of its spectacle
The world of art
The world of haughty institutions
                (Dead are the minds that murder with ideas and words
                Dead are the tongues that lust for recognition
                                Here the murderer
                                and there the murder’s handiwork
                                                Here the liar
                                                and there the lie

                                We call it social progress
                                                (It is death)

                                We call it wisdom
                                                (It is death)

Here the years have rotted
There the days
                thrown onto the age-old heap of vanities and hatreds
Have you not been with me all along
Following in silence like my shadow
                (When in fact you are the Man
                and I the shadow
                                You are the light
                                and I the darkness
                                                I the illusion
                                                and you the truth

Have I not called out to you from the very bottom of my fears
(in the worst of my moments
                with the most abject of prayers

                only to be lifted up on unseen hands
                                which I then
                                                in turn

Blown in to this corner of a disinterested world
My heart still beating desperately
                wanting to live
Superficially sufficient
                but a nervous
                                hollow shell
                Here you have bought and paid for my remains
                                stood me up
                                                on wavering legs
                                                with a flickering new sight
                                dimly seeing what I have always seen
                                                and never seen
                                                (what I have long despised

                                                                and always loved)

How can I ask for anything at all of my accord?
                (I bend as a willow in the wind
                You beat me with storms
                                and suffuse me with light

                I am enough as I am
                                in all my weakness
                (I have asked enough
                for I am no more than dust

Are you not the eye that sees into my inmost self?
Am I not as you have made me
All that is wretched and all that is good
All that strives
                and all that fears?
(Do not the seasons spin around me
                day in
                                and day out
                While I watch and feel and breathe

                My heart open
                My debts
                                made good

Do I not praise you as all dust must praise the rain
(From its nature
                from its smallness
                                as a child
                reaches up impossibly toward the sky

November 6, 2015

How can God condemn good people?

Two friends of mine have, quite independently, made the same argument against a strict scriptural understanding of Christianity. Both asked essentially this:
How can a loving, merciful God condemn non-believing but good people to eternal torment in hell?
To begin with, the question itself contains two assumptions that are worth noting. First, it assumes that scripture actually says that God condemns non-believers of all sorts to everlasting punishment. A great deal of effort has been put into humanizing scripture with new interpretations, but we will put that problem aside. I believe scripture does support quite widespread condemnation, and if a person confidently believed that scripture says otherwise that person really wouldn’t be worried about this issue in the first place.
The second and more revealing assumption the question makes is that there is a standard of goodness over and above God’s purposes, to which we can fairly expect God to conform. In other words, the question takes for granted that it is our notions of goodness and justice that the universe really should obey, and that God should be a sort of divine executive authority, whose purpose is to manipulate the universe so that it conforms to our ideals. Whether God exists or not, that is obviously not the universe we’re living in. Is cancer just by human standards? Are earthquakes?  More to the point, any interpretation of the Holy scriptures that involves actually reading them will show that it is not God who is here to serve our purposes – but we who are here to serve God’s. To even ask the question is more than to overlook some minor aspect of Christianity – it is to admit to an utter ignorance of who and what the scripture says God is. Atheists have long smugly assumed that man invented God, and to the extent that men have been willing to reinterpret (or abridge) the Holy scriptures to justify their own desires the atheists have been quite right. An average Christian of a hundred years ago would probably not have doubted the fate that waits for non-believers after death – but then their ultimate religious authority was the scriptures themselves. Our current standard is all too often the popular culture. Sadly, this is even frequently true of those who have authority over churches. Where, in scripture, does it say that the duty of God is to follow the standards of the secular society?
The God of the Bible is not without mercy – but he is not a grand entitlement administrator in the sky. He has expectations of us. Christ himself was quite straightforward about the conditions of salvation:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:16-18
In other words, we are saved by our faith that Jesus Christ suffered death in our place. He rose again that we might also rise. When we begin to think that Hindus and atheists, who lack this faith, might also go to heaven so long as they are “good people,” we only show ourselves to be either ignorant of scripture – or willing to twist it into whatever platitudes happen to suit our feelings.
God the father’s ultimate purposes are not easy to comprehend (they are perhaps not comprehensible at all) but he is not without consistency. Throughout the Old Testament he shows himself quite willing to condemn whole nations of non-believers in the course of his plans. To “save the world” does not appear, in God’s eyes, to necessarily mean saving the majority of the individuals. Nor does God’s position toward those who fall short of his purposes alter fundamentally in the New Testament:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Matthew 7:13-14
The salvation offered by Christ is not a giveaway to all but the most repugnant. If almost everyone, including non-believers, were to be saved then what would be the point of even teaching the Gospel?  What difference would it make?  While our sins were indeed paid for by Christ’s suffering, this gift of forgiveness and eternal life is received only through faith in Him.  Any other interpretation renders the text incoherent.

No one likes to think of good people being condemned, especially the people that we know and love. But we don’t get to vote on God’s purposes or his judgements. Those that we recognize as “good” people are usually those who are friendly to us or to whom we have some personal attachment. To be “good” in God’s eyes is to strive to obey his commandments – including the commandment which acknowledges his sovereignty. If the scriptures are understood courageously and honestly, God must be recognized an awesome and terrible being – a jealous God, wrathful on the one hand, but merciful and gracious on the other:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
Psalm 103:8-14

But one must note here – the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” He is merciful to those who believe.

While on Earth, there is much that we can do to help the non-believer. We are not, for the most part, called to be the instruments of God’s wrath. Scripture exhorts us to love our neighbor – repentant and unrepentant alike. That, and loving God, are the tasks set firmly and plainly before us in the Holy scriptures. Who are we to second guess God’s judgements?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For 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

Some thoughts about Barack Obama’s faith

Donald Trump’s recent refusal to slap down a questioner’s statement that Obama is a Muslim seems to have kicked that wasp’s nest yet again.  Though Trump himself appears to be sting-proof, the incident is still interesting because it highlights the ongoing uncertainty over Obama’s true beliefs.  While none of us can see into the man’s heart (and we will assume, for sake of argument, that Obama has such an organ) we can make reasonable assumptions based on his behavior.  When you take that look, it really does appear that most people have gotten it wrong.
Let’s begin with the question “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?”  It is true that his father and grandfather were Muslims, that he went to a Muslim school as a child, and that he shows some obvious Muslim sympathies.  Plenty of people in the Muslim world believe Obama is a Muslim, based on the reasons I’ve just outlined.  There is a difference, though, between being a Muslim and being a Muslim sympathizer.  While I don’t have very much praise to offer for Islam, one must acknowledge that it’s a rigorous religion with a clearly defined doctrine.  The word “Muslim” itself means “one who submits (to Allah)”.  If I were listing the attributes of our 44th president, the phrase “one who submits (to Allah)” would not appear anywhere on the list.  He may bow pathetically in front of foreign leaders, but there is little indication he “submits” to anything in a religious sense.  Muslims are required to declare their faith, and claiming to be a Christian infidel for political expedience is something serious Muslims seldom do.  The requirement to pray, on your knees, five times a day is not a duty real Muslims shrug off lightly either.  Can anyone honestly imagine Obama getting reverently down on his knees to worship anything – other than an awkwardly placed mirror?  Muslims are strictly opposed to intoxicants of any kind.  This does not sound like the religion for a man who talks casually about using marijuana and cocaine.  Muslims are not even supposed to smoke, but Obama certainly does.  Religious doctrines, right or wrong, produces a certain kind of man.  Bin Laden, for all his genocidal fanaticism, has to be given credit for the qualities of patience and bodily discipline.  Whatever Barack Obama might imagine about himself, he just doesn’t pass muster as a Muslim – at least not in a religious sense.
Obama’s claim to Christianity falls apart for similar reasons.  What is there that is Christian about him?  He does not refer to his supposed Christian faith except when it’s politically useful.  He criticizes Christians at almost every opportunity, displaying not only a contempt for the faith, but a spectacular sense of egotism that is out of character with the faith.  I grant that his election to two terms does seem like a terrible miracle, but he was elected president – he was not anointed a new Christ.  It is not for him to lecture real Christians about the shortcomings of their religion, and if he were a Christian he would know that.  Those who look to Obama for either salvation or moral guidance would be better off praying to the tooth fairy.  Of course, the claim that he’s the Antichrist is entirely laughable too.  For one thing, why would the puppet of Satan, whose evil powers are beyond estimation, need to resort to such a clumsy apparatus as a teleprompter?  I’m not here to play the devil’s advocate – but let’s give the devil his due!  Of all the possible emissaries in the world, he could find no better servant than Barack Hussein Obama?  The 20th century produced many more likely candidates for the job of Antichrist – none of them so petulant and disengaged.
The best evidence that Obama is not a Christian really isn’t his obvious lack of piety, but the fact that most people on the atheist left take it for granted that he’s an atheist like themselves.  When he is accused of being Muslim they will shout indignantly that Obama has declared himself a Christian – but they protest with a wink and a nod.  Anyone can see that Obama joined reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ primarily to convince the local voters that a Harvard-educated lawyer from Hawaii was, somehow, a real black man.  And Wright, in any case, doesn’t add much to anybody’s Christian credentials.  He’s not a “love thy neighbor” sort of pastor.  He’s the sort of pastor a liberal anti-traditionalist might well find entertaining – on those Sundays when the weather is either a little too wet or windy for golf.

While Obama isn’t disciplined enough to be a Muslim, or sincere enough to be a Christian, he doesn’t seem to quite pass muster as an atheist either.  Atheists believe there is no god.  They believe we are all the products of nature, and that there is nothing divine, or mystical, or truly special about any of us.  Obama writes and speaks with an air of destiny any hardheaded atheist ought to find disturbing.  He may not believe in American exceptionalism, but he clearly believes in his own exceptionalism.  I’m not just being vicious to the president here.  I am being vicious – but I’m not just being vicious.  There is a point at which vanity becomes more than an unpleasant personal trait, and crosses into the realm of a pathology.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a recognized form of mental illness, and Barack Obama embodies every one of its symptoms:

1.                   An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2.                   Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3.                   Believes he is "special" and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4.                   Requires excessive admiration.
5.                   Has a sense of entitlement.
6.                   Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends.
7.                   Lacks empathy.
8.                  Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.
9.                   Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes.
                - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV , American Psychiatric Association
It is only necessary, by the way, to show five out of the nine symptoms.
While there has never been a clinical diagnosis of the president, for obvious reasons, let’s not be blind.  Even some liberal journalists have pointed out that our president seems disappointed with the world – as though the world were failing him, rather than him failing to cope successfully with it.  All presidents have hefty egos, but this is something more than simply ego.  Barack Obama’s favoritism toward Muslims has nothing to do with actual religious beliefs – of which he may well be incapable.  His fondness for Islam is nothing more than a mystical preoccupation with his own personal heritage.  His lukewarm Christianity is a mere expedience.  Even his atheism is no more than the casual adoption of the formless, open-ended pseudo-religion of his benefactors.  His true god is, and probably always will be, himself.