Sunday, July 28, 2013

What about an Afterlife ...

Its been a little over a year since my last new post here. My use of this blog site has changed some ... it is a repository of writings to which I refer people, but most of my new writing is done elsewhere. I would like to return to this blog from time to time with offerings such as today's. On a facebook discussion board to which I belong, I was asked yesterday to comment on the afterlife. I wrote a series of comments, which are here slightly edited and compiled:

1) Koheleth, the writer of Ecclesiates, declares in 3:11, that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men." A skeptic cannot say there is no evidence for an afterlife unless he can deny this universal quest within the human heart to break through the temporal bonds which now limit us to this rush of time with its necessary terminus. We all want to live forever!! Where did that urge come from? Koheleth says it comes from God himself!

I love the comment from Keil and Delitzsch (Delitzsch wrote this section) on this verse:

"... He has also established in man an impulse leading him beyond that which is temporal toward the eternal: it lies in his nature not to be contented with the temporal, but to break through the limits which it draws around him, to escape from the bondage and the disquietude within which he is held, and amid the ceaseless changes of time to console himself by directing his thoughts to eternity.
"... the impulse of man shows that his innermost wants cannot be satisfied by that which is temporal. He is a being limited by time, but as to his innermost nature he is related to eternity."

2) I was intrigued by an earlier comment above about heaven being the best place evolution (as a tool in the hand of God) can create. I know it was dismissed quickly, but I think the idea merits deeper consideration. I actually love the thought. Assuming a few billion souls are added to the ultimate eternal ontological milieu, things in that eternal state will be altered forever! And who is to say that reality will not go forever changing, evolving, growing, becoming ever greater, more majestic, more beautiful, more wonderful. The conventional concept of an afterlife that many people (including myself) have found distasteful is a static, fixed state of being. "Boring," some have said. And I agree, if you limit your imagination to Sunday School descriptions of heaven.

3) Learning, and evolving, are both cause-effect processes which imply TIME. So I do not think eternity is devoid of time, but rather that time is expanded to multiple dimensions instead of the single, lineal dimension of time we experience. But what will we do with all that time?

In this regard, I have considered that one of our chief occupations in that forever state will be to know God. To explore him! And since we understand that God is infinite, how much time will be required to fully know God? That's right ... infinite time. We will never exhaust this process of discovery.

A few hundred billion years from now, a few friends and I will be sitting around comparing notes on the fresh new things we have "just discovered" about this majestic Being whose very essence is Love!

4) All of these considerations are, for me, predicated upon the assumption that God is indeed LOVE personified, that he is relational, that he is infinite, and unimaginably GOOD. If he is not these things, then I will prefer to lie in my grave forever. No resurrection, please! Let me rest in death forever! But if he is these things, the mere fact that he created us is my assurance that he (as David says in Psalm 16:10) will not abandon me to the grave. He will resurrect me (and all of us) into that state in which  there will be a "restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21).

Four months after my wife died in 2010, in the midst of the deepest month of my grief, I wrote this blog post in response to a friend who had asked me for thoughts on heaven ...

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Worthiness of Jesus

I belong to a facebook discussion forum which calls itself, "Celebrating Creation by Natural Selection", which will tell you that the group is comprised (in part) by people who believe that God uses natural processes (evolution) in his work of creation. But the site is often a launching pad for far-ranging conversations about God.

Because we have among our members many atheists (the friendly variety!), many working scientists and/or academics, and many Bible scholars, conversations can at times be challenging! The site has been helpful to me in formulating my thoughts within an environment in which half-baked theologies and ill-informed opinions will simply not fly! Intellectual integrity and honesty are highly valued.

It seems that much of my writing has shifted from blogging to conversing on this and other discussion forums. Yesterday, a friend named Marv posed a question about world religions (including our own) and the various feeble human efforts to understand our Creator. In assembling my own thoughts about this, and responding to another friend, Laurie Ann, I typed some comments that express a lot of my current thinking about my faith, and about Jesus. I share a bit of that discussion with you here, and I welcome your comments. ~

Marv: I am pondering a scenario where we admit that all world religions are man made. I marvel at the beauty of the universe by "celebrating creation by natural selection", and I stand in awe of that. I also firmly believe in a creator. This thought process leads me to the stunning conclusion that we may know absolutely nothing about who the creator is or how that should impact our daily lives. While that seems is also freeing. Wonder if any of you ever think about this? I won't be able to reply all day cause I'm off to Flatirons Community Church in Denver, Co. to try and figure it all out.

Cliff: Hopefully Flatirons Community Church will settle this mystery for us.

Yes, Marv, I think about that a lot. As I have indicated elsewhere, I am committed to following Jesus, whom I see as unique in world history. But even if I have overestimated his uniqueness, or significance, I can still conceive of no better life than the one that is inspired by Jesus. So I don't have much angst about whether I'm right about Christianity. I'll simply emulate and obey Jesus the best I can.

So it would not significantly impact my faith or my life if I were to learn, tomorrow, that all the world's religions are but feeble attempts to identify and worship the Creator (or creative force) and that the Abrahamic faiths are included.

Cliff: Last week, the oldest human culture (by carbon dating) yet discovered in the American continents was identified right here in my state of Oregon, and the dating (14K to 15K) confirms earlier theories that the aboriginal American populations date back 15,000 or 20,000 years. DNA evidence strongly suggests that these populations have been totally isolated from the rest of the human race for that entire span of time. Further evidence suggests that the combined American populations constituted up to 20% of humanity at the time of Columbus. And their isolation predates Abraham by at least 10,000 years. Yet, the paganism that developed in some populations resembles pagan beliefs in the rest of the world. And the sparks of monotheism which arose here is not unlike that which many of us hold to today.

If we insist that God's only authentic approach to humankind was to Abraham and his physical and spiritual descendants, we have to ask, did God not care about these Americans?

Laurie Ann: Cliff... why do you see Jesus as unique in human history? Do you really think there aren't other kind, loving and people committed to service to the degree Jesus was? If he was simply a good man who lived and died and that was it.... is there a reason to "follow" him vs following Gandhi or someone similar? I think you're an incredibly insightful, kind and gentle soul... just not sure what would cause you to follow some guy who lived 2000 years ago if he was just a man like any other man. If there's been no one else who has lived a life of service such as him in 2000 years -- that would be pretty sad.

Cliff: First, Laurie, understand that I do not consider Jesus to be "just a man like any other man." If I positively believed what you are writing, I might think again about paying him so much attention. I believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be ... the one and only unique Son of God. My point above is that, even if I am mistaken about that, following Jesus would still be a worthy life-long pursuit. 

Was Jesus unique? What set him apart from other worthy models of kindness, love and service? The example you cite is Gandhi. And I share your high regard for Gandhi! However, the peace and non-violent resistance of Gandhi was employed by him in the service of a political agenda. Love and peace were, for Gandhi, subservient to his overriding goal of independence for India (or for the socio-political goals of other causes around the world which he supported). Laudable! Wonderful! He is right up there among my "most admired". 

Jesus, however, extolled the virtues of love and peace without overarching agendas or causes. In the absence of such agendas (Jesus seemed utterly ambivalent about the Roman occupation, e.g.) Jesus nevertheless taught and (what is more impressive to me) exemplified the ways of peace, love and forgiveness for their own merit. Just because they are good. All other matters relating to social justice issues, or political oppression, etc., would self-resolve in the face of a band of loving peace-makers. (At least, this is how I read Jesus). 

For example, much has been made here and elsewhere of the fact that the Bible does not crusade against slavery, that Jesus did not preach against slavery or the oppression of women or other societal injustices. But the whole point of Jesus's teachings is that these agendas and causes (worthy though they may be) are not the focus of one's life. Love is the focus. Social justice is the by-product. I believe that the elevation of womankind, and the abolition of slavery (where these things have occurred) have often been the by-product of the revolution of love started by Jesus. Humanism itself, and the rise of the worth and value of the individual human (which we all too often take for granted!) are the children of this revolution, imo.

Much more could be said, I'm sure. But will this do for starters?

Laurie Ann: ... Thank you for that explanation!

Monday, April 30, 2012

I have long believed that wherever we encounter truth, in addition to evidentiary support, we should expect to find the highest of dramas, and the most exquisite of beauties. 

One reason for my rejection of many traditional Christian views (including the standard evangelical meta-narrative, young earth creationism, etc.) has been my dissatisfaction with the blandness of the story. Quite frankly, Hollywood can tell a more engaging tale. And man's efforts at art surpass in elegance and splendor what I once saw as the standard Christian narrative. I expect to find that the best story man can spin will be but a distant echo of The Story, and the finest art man can produce but a blurred and feeble facsimile of The Reality. In this way, I expect Beauty and Drama to validate authenticity, orthodoxy.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

God Vulnerable

Sometimes my atheistic friends display spiritual insight beyond many of my believing friends. As I reviewed some of my Christmas related files this morning, I encountered this 4-year old exchange between my friend Tom and me, consisting a post he wrote on his own blog, and my comment. The exchange inspired me to build the graphic below, and to reproduce a portion of our conversation ...

"Why the need for a vulnerable God?"

The Christmas season is a bit peculiar for atheists, especially de-converted ones like me. Choirs and the songs they sing are especially poignant. "O Holy Night" is beautiful and "Silent Night" is so wondrously simple. However, the religious pomp is no longer part of my life.

When I recollect the nativity story, it begins with a weary Mary who has traveled so far to Bethlehem, and a penniless Joseph who is panicking to get his wife somewhere where she can deliver a baby. There is no hospital, home, or quarters available, just a barn. Then there He is. Between runs from Herod and the life that is to follow, there is this moment where all has stopped and the universe looks on at God incarnate, this tiny, needy baby on a bed of straw. While "Hallelujah's" are part of the scene, it's really overwhelming peace that is iconized in the nativity.

Christianity is strong on symbols and the two biggies are the cross and the nativity. The cross is violent and the nativity is peace, but both exhibit a vulnerable God. It is this God-made-feebly-human characteristic that ironically makes the Christian God so attractive and able to yield strong convictions in followers. No wonder the broken hearted, lonely, and strung out reach out to Jesus. But what about us suburban upper middle-class kids? What is it really about the vulnerable-God story that hooks so many and can even make a formerly religious, now anti-religious atheist like me nostalgic? posted by Tom at 11:29 PM on Dec 23, 2007

My comment:

Wow, Tom. You preach a better Christmas sermon than most believers I know. But you raise a valid and significant question. Indeed, we could let Jesus answer it himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus often said that he did not come for the “suburban middle class kids” of his day, but for the lost sheep. Yet, even though they were not the target of Jesus’ ministry, many of those healthy, righteous, together people did choose to come along for the ride. And, so long as they could stomach the throng of whores and addicts surrounding Jesus, they were heartily received. The Zacchaeuses, the Matthews, and the Nichodemuses were not turned away! But others, like the rich young ruler, found Jesus attractive but wholly inaccessible on their own defined terms.

Why such vulnerability in God’s “self-presentation”? Perhaps, as the above paragraph would suggest, it was an appeal to the lowest common denominator of mankind; God knowing that any other approach would slam the door of relationship in the faces of the bottom half of humanity. But for me (also a suburban middle class kid), the picture of the Almighty in kenosis (self-emptying), utterly vulnerable, unconsumed by self-importance, humble, serving, is what attracts me to him. And are these not the qualities we look for in our very closest friends? I am only free to reveal my deepest inner core to another who has made himself vulnerable to me.

It is, in fact, what draws you and me to each other. You are one of those rare human beings who is not consumed by self-importance, an atheist who does not demean believers, who is not afraid to mention your own “atheistic doubts” to believers. In short, you have readily presented yourself to your readers as vulnerable. And I hope I have done the same. I do not wish to pretend that my faith is all so secure and air-tight that I have no room for your penetrating questions and challenges. It is my desire to present myself to you as a vulnerable human being, sharing with you a sincere quest for truth, for the ultimate answers that are, at times, elusive for me also.

When I only present myself in my strength, I drive people away. My strength is never grounds for intimate friendship, for deep relationship. It seems I often come across this way. I am naturally self-assured, proud, “together”, successful in business and life, etc. But when I freely open up my weaknesses, when I own up to my own failures, when I lay out the frailties of my humanity – that is when I find people strangely drawn to me, drawn to deep friendship with me, opening the secrets of their own hearts to me. It is remarkable. I am most “winsome” in my weakness, in my vulnerability. I define intimacy as “into-me-see”.

But what of God? He has no “real” weaknesses. He has nothing we could call “failure”. And, in his self-presentation to us, he admits none. Still, he takes on all the weakness inherent in human flesh. He absolutely humbles himself at the nativity and at the cross. He leaves no barriers of exaltation, of perfect strength, of free divine prerogative, to bar our access to him. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 3:32. One translation says that he “takes the upright into his confidence”. Another has it “He is intimate with the upright.” The original language has hints of pillows and couches, as though God is inviting us into his parlor. God wants to share secrets with us. He wants intimacy with us. This absolutely blows me away! And if it is true (even if there is but a remote chance that it is true!) surely there can be no greater quest than our pursuit to enter into such a relationship with the Creator of all!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Personal: Thanksgiving 2011

When Ginger, my late wife, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, I began a series of email updates which were sent to a number of friends to keep them informed on Ginger's battle with cancer. After her passing in the Spring of 2010, I have continued to send out these updates, the focus shifting to a sort of journal of my own experience of loss and grief.

Today's post is an excerpt from one such email sent this week. I hope you find it useful as you think about thankfulness today!

~ Cliff

The Thanksgiving holiday is one of the better inventions of our American culture. Thanksgiving was Ginger’s favorite holiday. She loved to gather her family around one essential principle ... the power inherent in a thankful heart. Of course, gratitude is not the unique commodity of Thanksgiving Day, nor should it be. But this holiday does provide us with an opportunity to pause and consider its importance, and the dynamic capacities released through thankfulness.

Consider with me the transforming dynamic of thanksgiving. In the first century, opinions varied among believers over which foods were morally safe to eat, and which we should avoid. Paul often addressed this issue. Rather than being a matter of religious legislation, Paul set the matter into the realm of personal conscience. In one place (1 Timothy 4:3-4), he teaches that the key to eating otherwise verboten foods is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, it seems, actually has the power to transform food, and make it acceptable to the eater! Questionable foods become beneficial foods by the application of thanksgiving! From this teaching comes the Christian habit of saying grace at our dinner tables.

But this principle also serves as an analogy for life: “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”. Nothing! Thanksgiving changes things! The Bible suggests that we can transform anxiety into peace with the application of thankfulness (Philippians 4:6-7). The way out of confusing and troubling circumstances is opened by thankfulness (Psalm 50:23). Thanksgiving can alter life’s bitter experiences, reshaping them into growth stimulants! Author Shauna Neiquist puts it this way: "When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow."

My life has no shortage of opportunities to test this theory! I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what it means to be thankful for cancer. I won’t pretend that I’ve arrived at a place of offering thanks for Ginger’s passing. But I am reminded of the frequent references in the Bible to the discipline of thankfulness. It is sometimes placed into the category of sacrifice. Personal thanksgiving must at times be pushed through the steady resistance of our own sorrow, even anger. In such circumstances, thanksgiving is offered without full understanding; it is offered in faith, and in hope.

Recently, I was handed another occasion to test the operations of thankfulness! My account on a social internet site was hacked. I was able to shut down the account before serious damage was done. But nevertheless, I got a taste of I.D. theft. It is not pleasant. Aside from feeling personally violated, and having my reputation drug through the gutter, I was left feeling vulnerable on many fronts. I have since secured my computer, and my other online dealings against future attack, and this is a good thing. But I have also been forcibly, and permanently blocked from many friendships. My initial reaction was one of unbridled anger! I was livid! But as I have considered the net gains and losses from this experience, anger has given way to a strange and unexpected gratitude. Accepting our circumstances, even finding those elements for which we can offer thanks, is so much better than stubbornly resisting them. This experience has given me opportunity to reevaluate some of my personal goals and priorities, a process which has strangely given me a new sense of contentment; and a growing thankfulness for the services of an internet intruder.

As you gather with friends and family today, my wish is that your holiday will be filled with happy thoughts, great food, and closeness with your loved ones. But take a moment or two and review those circumstances in your life which naturally create sorrow, anger, or anxiety. Find a place for them in the kettle of gratitude. And watch as thankfulness works its transformative magic!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Human Evolution and Theology

It’s been over six months since my last entry on this blog. My apologies to the many who continue to check in here, only to find the well still dry! There are many reasons for my writing hiatus, most of them personal. But I hope to resume writing, and today I offer this summary of a recent Biologos article, together with a brief facebook exchange from yesterday.

My friend, Dennis Venema, is an Associate Professor of Biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and a Senior Fellow of the Biologos Foundation. Yesterday, he posted a fascinating description of early human speciation at the Biologos site. Evolution doubters confused about microevolution versus macroevolution would do well just to read Venema’s opening paragraphs about how new species develop, and when they cross that invisible line demarcating a “new species”. Venema’s main thrust is how genetics is showing the way to a deeper understanding of how the very early Hominid species spread out across the globe, and how they interacted, and interbred. But Venema’s driving passion, much like my own, goes beyond elucidation of our distant past; he longs for the conversation which evangelical Christians must engage which is less about natural history, and more about its theological implications. Venema closes his article with this:

"Even as I stand amazed in what God has revealed to us about our origins through science, I know that this new information will be difficult for some within the evangelical community to accept. Moreover, it is almost certain that some Christian groups, unfortunately, will misrepresent this data to their constituents (whether intentionally or not), and thus spread confusion that hinders the needed theological conversation. Still, I have reason for hope: God has seen it fit to reveal this information to us, and that suggests that He believes the evangelical Christian community is ready for this conversation to happen. As [Biologos President] Darrel [Falk] mentioned at the end of his recent piece, we at BioLogos want to assist our evangelical sisters and brothers in this conversation in any way we can, in full confidence that it can be done in an edifying way ..."

I posted a link to Venema’s article yesterday, and one of my facebook friends commented with several questions. My friend, Tim, is an unbeliever, and puzzles over how or why believers who understand our evolutionary past persist in efforts to reconcile “the biblical narrative from Genesis” with “what science has discovered.” Tim writes, “I just don't get this insane drive to keep believing something that is completely contradictory to the facts.” He goes on to quote Venema’s amazement “in what God has revealed to us about our origins through science.” Tim is incredulous, even infuriated, at such a statement. He writes, “God didn’t reveal anything. Man looked around observed tested and discovered. What God supposedly revealed about the natural world in Genesis is in short a fairy tale. Simply put when it comes to explaining how why things work the way they do or are the way they are its Science a whole whole lot and God zero.”

My answer to Tim’s concerns follows:

“A lot of really good questions, Tim. I'll try to answer succinctly, though each of your questions is worthy of an essay!

“People like Venema and myself make little attempt to align current understandings of natural history and science with the narrative of Genesis in the way you presume. (Some believers do, e.g. Hugh Ross, and his organization "Reasons to Believe" <>.) Rather, Genesis appears to us to be an ancient text that provides a wealth of early theological insights within it's contemporary cosmological framework, but which contains little or no supernaturally supplied information about science, origins, or natural history.

“But what you are really asking is why maintain faith in any Biblical revelation in light of the Bible's lack of historical/scientific preciseness. I cannot presume to answer for Dennis, but I can tell you that for me, this is a choice that is rooted in my faith in the person of Jesus, who is called in the Bible the "Word of God", and as such is the ultimate expression of God, the ultimate divine revelation. And the Bible, in my opinion a substantially accurate source of history concurrent with its writing, tells us much about Jesus prospectively in the O.T., concurrently in the Gospels, and retrospectively in the rest of the N.T. When I couple together the things we are learning from science about origins, evolution, physics, etc. with what is revealed in Jesus and in the book about him, the results are exciting, refreshing, and captivating (you can read some of my observations on my blog, OutsideTheBox).

“Your question about "God revealing through science" is a fair question. There is a verse in Proverbs that says "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings." That is, God's revelations in nature are concealed, below the surface, awaiting discovery. Science (which you may know was largely driven by theistic belief for much of it's history) is man uncovering the secrets of the Creator. The Biblical presumption is that all of nature is God revealing, and we call this "Natural Revelation".

“So your score card ("science a whole lot, God zero") presumes that God spoon feeds information to us, or that Christians believe that he does this. While some Christians may think that way, I assure you that Venema does not. Nor do I.”

Your comments are welcome ...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

God: the Author of Chaos?

When I share my views about open theology (that God might not know details about the future) or about God’s noninterventionist ways (that God is mostly “hands-off” with respect to Creation, our individual lives, and the flow of human history), some believers get noticeably anxious! They worry about a world not tightly supervised by its God, a world which is not controlled, and micro-engineered by God. More than once have my views been characterized as deistic. But I am not deist. I believe in, and base my life hope in, a God who is personal, vitally interested in us, and highly purposeful! Nevertheless, it seems that, for some, conceiving of God as the “blessed controller” provides a level of comfort and security they are unwilling to give up. And they often wonder out loud how a universe ungoverned could ever accomplish the ends of a purposeful Creator.

I believe that science can help to solve this mystery! Throughout the natural order, we see a confluence of randomness with design and purpose and ultimate predictability that is fascinating to me; and which may be instructive as we seek to understand the ways of God. Three examples are chaos theory, quantum uncertainty, and evolutionary convergence. I’ve written on some of these in the past. Here I bring them together for your consideration.

Chaos theory, originally explored as a mathematical phenomenon, has been observed and studied in a variety of fields from meteorology to economics to philosophy. Chaos theory tells us that very small, seemingly insignificant variations in initial conditions may result in enormous alterations to the long-range outcomes. The familiar example is that of the “butterfly effect”. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can, according to chaos theory, set off a disturbance in air patterns which could ultimately cause a destructive hurricane to strike Texas, or Indonesia! Chaos theory deals with causes and effects that are, by some measures, completely unpredictable. But there are corollary principles to chaos theory, called fractals. Examples of fractals include the principle of “self-similarity”, and the “Lorenz attractor”. These principles bring a level of order and predictability even to chaotic systems. That is, while initially, effects may splay out in totally unpredictable and chaotic ways, on larger (or smaller) scales certain patterns emerge. And these patterns become predictable, and stable.

In Quantum mechanics, the principle of Uncertainty speaks of the utter unpredictability of the movements and behaviors of subatomic particles. And yet, while the physicist may be unable to predict how a given quark or other quantum particle will behave, when observed as a mass of collective particles, the sum of the behavior of such particles becomes predictable with a high degree of accuracy.

Biology bows to a similar pattern. The competing principles of contingency and convergence don’t actually compete at all. Both principles are operating throughout evolution. Contingency suggests that mutations and adaptations are unpredictable. Thus the evolutionary trajectory of similar organisms isolated geographically may vary widely even within similar biomes. And yet, convergence suggests that certain ultimate effects are quite predictable, as evolution will self-guide into preexisting, or developing ecological niches. Together, contingency and convergence are the opposing sides of the same coin. They tell us that God could create life just as he willed it by allowing it to move along paths that appear to be totally random. Simon Conway-Morris has theorized that the evolution of man, substantially as we have seen on this planet, was inevitable, and would occur on any planet given the same set of initial conditions, even though the paths might vary widely.

This pattern — this phenomenon of random, unpredictable movements and processes ultimately coalescing into long-range outcomes which are foreseeable — provides us with illustrations from nature: natural phenomena which mirror and typify spiritual phenomena. But might they be more than that? Might they suggest a continuity of patterns built into the structure of the cosmos that extend from discernible physical and biological laws to spiritual laws? Do they identify a divine rubric, God’s chosen M.O? I believe they do!

And if so, they suggest that the purposes of God can and will be accomplished through his Creation even as he restrains his hand.