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.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Science Matters!

Frequently, certain friends seem troubled by my exploration of the sciences, and my willingness to accept evidence which at times runs contrary to earlier theological assumptions. A friend recently wrote to me expressing her concern over my interest in what she regards as “the religion of science.” Below is my response to this friend:

I do not share your view of science. You indicate that science is a religion unto itself, that is it merely "possible" for a scientist to believe the Bible, and that science (or what you call "worldly knowledge") is something that will eventually fade away.

I have a much higher view of science, and of its usefulness to faith, to understanding God, to understanding spiritual things, etc. Without question there are those who wrongly worship science, just as some worship sports, others worship cultural icons of Hollywood, and some (dare I say it?) worship the Bible. I know people who would define their entire relationship with God as a pouring over the Hebrew and Greek, searching out the minutia of the text for hidden clues about God, while they have little personal knowledge of or walk with the true "Word of God", Jesus. They have fallen into bibliolatry. But we have these two great sources (or channels, more accurately) of revelation: Special Revelation, and General Revelation. We learn about God in the pages of Scripture, the person of Jesus, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit; and we also learn about him by paying close attention to Creation, to the works of his hands. If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God, then we have a much fuller understanding of God's greatness, magnitude, and glory post-Hubble than before. The intricacies of the living cell are clueing us into the infinite wisdom and creative genius of God. Quantum mechanics is helping to dismantle the unhealthy notions of strict determinism ... that is, we now know the universe is not a static Newtonian predictable set of causes and effects; that helps to correct our theology! Paul tell us in Romans 1 that we can not only learn of God's existence in nature, but we can even learn about his attributes, perhaps even facets of his character. Knowing the Bible, and personally knowing Jesus, helps us to properly "read" the data from science. But it is equally true to say that science helps us to properly read the Bible. It did so in Galileo's day; it continues to do so today. Technically, of course, you are correct: all knowledge will fade away, including science, and including (in my view, at least) the Bible. But for now, science is an amazing tool for looking deeply into God, how he structured the cosmos, how he created the universe. These profound data give us clues to his purposes, and why he responds (or at times does not respond) as he does. The more I understand from science, the more I come back to the Scriptures and say "Aha ... now I understand that!"

I read in your tone almost disdain for science. That makes me sad. It is true that secularism has hijacked science to a large degree over the last 100 year or so. And, in my view, history reveals that we, the people of faith, are utterly responsible for that hijacking! Through the early centuries of the western scientific enterprise, the primary impetus of science, the motivation for scientific inquiry and study, was God! It was a bottom-line belief in a good and orderly God that gave rise to science, and that fueled its progress for hundreds of years. But when the early fundamentalists of 100 years ago (not all of them, to be sure), tied science (particularly evolution) to the attacks upon the Bible in the late 19th Century, believers abandoned science en masse. Secularists picked up the sciences and ran with them. And the Christian fundamentalist leaders began a century long campaign against science. "Don't trust it" they told us from their pulpits. "It is evil, filled with atheistic lies!" This fundamentalist mantra continues right down to the present day. When I read your comments about science, I fear you have bought into this polemic. I cannot agree with it at all. Not only do I learn about God, understand better his actions in my own life, through peering deeply into nature, but I want Christians everywhere to listen to what we are learning from science; yes, to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff; but to stop the travesty of a church turning its back upon the honest study of our Lord's ingenious and creative works, and deeding it over to atheists and secularist. Christians, of all people, should be the most interested in science. I find it a deplorable tragedy that so many are not, and that we continue to allow atheistic thinkers to set the agenda for science by simple default. Thank God for scientists who are outspoken believers! Thank God for Francis Collins! Thank God for Kenneth Miller! Thank God for Simon Conway-Morris! I thank God for dedicated followers of Jesus who are reassuming positions on the cutting edges of science, who are not denying obvious facts, but who are instead moving science in its proper (and only true) direction: toward God!