Love is God

“God is love, but he’s also just, holy, and righteous.”

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard it or have even said it. I’ve heard it quite a few times and I usually answer it with a nod and also a slight roll of the eyes. It’s an argument I rarely engage since I’m never too sure how to handle it. It’s said in a couple different contexts.

Sometimes Christians say it when talking about “the world” and how they have a distorted idea of what love is. The world thinks they can just use the word love to mean anything they want it to now. They love pie, they love pizza, and they love their mother.

Sometimes Christians say it when they feel like God’s getting too feminine in a time when it’s already hard marketing their church to men. God’s not just this mushy guy who’s soft-spoken and forgiving all the time. He’s authoritative, powerful, and has manly anger issues.

Sometimes Christians say it when they think people get the idea that if God loves them, then he’s accepting of whatever they do. They might bring up major pop stars thanking God for a VMA but forgetting that God isn’t always so lovey-dovey. He’s also wrathful and hates MTV.

“God is love, but he’s also just, holy, and righteous.”

The first odd thing about the statement is that it ignores the grammar. Just, holy, and righteous are all adjectives, but love is a noun. “God is love” comes from 1 John. John didn’t write that God is loving; he wrote that God is love. A = B. The other three words are just descriptors. So if just, holy, and righteous describe God (A), don’t they also describe love (B)?

Christians shouldn’t just see love as being an attribute of God that he has to balance with his uglier attributes. He isn’t loving sometimes, then other times he’s gotta lay down the law and be just, holy, and righteous. God is love all the time. It’s who he is. He can’t not be love. And to say that his justice, holiness, and righteousness need to be balanced with his love is really just another distortion of what love really means. That’s because if we say that love is in opposition to justice, holiness, and righteousness, then we’d probably suppose that love is always just nice, comfortable things.

God-love is unconditional and it challenges us. God’s attributes flow out of his love, and they don’t stand in spite of his love. There is a reason we all have some idea of what love is, and it’s probably from evolution, biology, and survival instincts, but I choose to believe it’s ultimately from God’s great story of creation. Most people would agree that love is selflessness. And selfless love works for justice for all people, it desires to lift others above yourself to greatness, and it calls for us to reconcile to one another and nature through right living.

If you still don’t agree that love is the greatest thing God shares with us, consider some of these prooftexts taken out of context:

The greatest commandments are to love God and love others. (Jesus)

Love endures all things. (1 Corinthians)

Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians)

Love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans)

Above all virtues put on love, which binds everything together in perfect unity. (Colossians)

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John)

Whoever abides in love, abides in God. (1 John)

Of course, all this talk of God-love seems kind of silly in a world where there’s so much pain and suffering, but I suppose that’s a topic for another day.

‘The Master’ and Christian Defensiveness

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Lancaster Dodd, the leader of cult-like, philosophical movement called the Cause. In the film, a major practice of the Cause is to help people remember and connect with their past lives so that they can learn from them and help heal the world. For Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, sex-obsessed World War II veteran with more than a couple issues. Freddie joins the Cause because Dodd befriends him and helps him find acceptance in the group. Dodd is charming and manipulative but genuinely likes Freddie, so Freddie is drawn to the Cause because it’s pretty much his last hope. It’s all he’s got left.

However, whether or not Freddie believes in the teachings of the Cause is a little fuzzy. There are points when he seems convinced that Dodd is a fake, but whenever someone challenges Dodd on the Cause, Freddie beats the snot out of them. But why does he become so violent, even after Dodd communicates his disapproval of Freddie’s outbursts? And why would Freddie become violent over a belief that he probably doesn’t even hold? It’s because he’s afraid.

I’ve heard reviews of The Master that liken the Cause to scientology and claim that the film just is a critique of the religion. It may be, but I feel as though that the film spoke to me as a Christian. If we’re not careful, Christianity can become a religion of fear rather than a religion of love. Freddie gets angry when people criticized the Cause because he’s afraid that it’s not true, but more importantly he gets defensive because he doesn’t really believe it’s true. He can’t believe it’s true. He was just in the war where he saw tragedy, suffering, and hopelessness. But the Cause is still the only thing he has, especially since it seems to be his last hope in finding sexual companionship, an unhealthy obsession of his.

So what does it mean when Christians become defensive about their faith? Christians harshly defend their beliefs in the Bible as the infallible word of God, they defend themselves against postmodernity, they protect their minds from secular media and news sources that contradict their political agendas, they judge whether or not a person is saved based on whether or not they have all the right beliefs, and they defend their right beliefs against the heretical ones. But this defensiveness, as we can learn from The Master, seems like a reaction of fear. Christians get defensive because they’re afraid that what they’re supposed to believe isn’t really true, and maybe their defending the faith is more of an expression of their doubt – their fear of uncertainty.

But like the sexual fulfillment Freddie desperately looks for in the Cause, we Christians seem to look to our faith to fulfill the odd desires that we have. We seek protection, good vibes, and emotional realization in our churches, but more importantly we seek an out from a supposed eternally condemning afterlife. To me, that sounds like a religion of fear that comes with judgment, denial, and closed-mindedness. But in our beautiful postmodern world, fear doesn’t have the marketing power it once did.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” If we’re supposed to abide in God’s love, then our focus shouldn’t be on our own self-preservation. God’s love shouldn’t motivate us to put up walls, guard ourselves from the “secular” world, and talk to people with an agenda to get them on our side of the wall. God’s love should be our motivation to understand the worries and uncertainties of others. It should be our reason to tear down the walls, deny ourselves, and build a community with everyone, including those we disagree with. It should motivate us to go into our monotonous day jobs each morning with the presence of God and goodness on our minds.

5 Things Christians can Learn from Atheists

As a Christian, I have seen hostility toward atheists. Studies have shown that, out of most other belief systems, people are least likely to elect an atheist for president. It’s obvious that atheists are on the margins of American society. People make a lot of presumptions about atheists that, I believe, are untrue. It may be because we don’t know a lot about atheists, since atheism seems so simple. How can you complicate a lack of belief. I think that lack is what can scare us the most. The human mind wasn’t wired to comprehend nothing, even though nothing is what makes up most of our universe. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of atheists who lead joyful lives believing that there are no gods. Christians can either be threatened by that or they can open their minds to what that view of the world can teach them about how they relate to God and others.

So here are my five things Christians can learn from atheists. Now, I realize that not all atheists are irreligious, but I’m focusing on those who are in this post. Also, I’d like to note that these points are obviously generalizations. I’m making generalizations about Christians, too, so it’s okay then, right?

1. Things aren’t always so black and white

“If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.” – Woody Allen

Uncertainty was what pervaded people for most of all human history. We had a brief moment in history in which people thought they could be certain, but then postmodernism came along and threw God out with the baptism water. Things in the postmodern world aren’t so black and white, right and wrong, this and that. Everything flows and influences everything else. What’s right for some might not be right for others, and sometimes it could be good to take a step back and see the world through someone else’s eyes. Atheists ask some very good questions, and when we consider how to answer those questions, let’s remind ourselves that not everyone sees the world the way we do. Not everyone even have the ability or capacity to see the world in the same way.

2. What we do in this life is important

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – Douglas Adams 

Christianity can at times be so focused on the afterlife that we forget that the things we do in this life make great differences. I think we can forget, sometimes, that the world will continue to spin after we die. There will be others after us who will have to deal with the consequences of our actions. If all we do is prepare people for an afterlife, we’ll miss the opportunity to make the world a better place for our children. To atheists, what we do in this life may not make a difference about an afterlife, but it sure as heck makes a difference for those who will take up the mantle of taking care of this world after we’re gone.

3. Do good for others’ sake

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” – Christopher Hitchens

Secular humanism has always seemed like the opposite of Christianity. To Christians, what we believe is almost always more important than what we do because what we believe decides our eternal fate, but what we do is only temporary. To the secular humanist, what we believe and what we do go hand in hand. When an atheist does good deed, they’re not trying to impress a deity. They’re doing them for the sake of other people.

4. Good does not avoid evil

“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.” – Kurt Vonnegut 

But the Bible teaches that our good deeds are like dirty rags to God, doesn’t it? Christians don’t do good to impress God. We do good because we want to look more like Christ. But isn’t that still a selfish endeavor in a way? Atheism can teach us that even when there’s probably no possible way to completely do something unselfishly, we should still do it. Even when whatever we’re doing is subconsciously about our own self-preservation or is the product of some evolutionary process, we should still treat all people with dignity, respect, and love. The Christian life has become more about avoiding sin than abiding in love. If we always avoid evil, we might stop ourselves from doing good.

5. Atheists are not our enemies

“If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.” – Edmund de Goncourt 

Despite what certain Christian films try to convince us of otherwise, atheists are not always out to take God away from us. Also, not all atheists are living lives of debauchery and evil. Most people, regardless of religious beliefs, have some sense of morality. Even if it’s possible that morality might be subjective, it doesn’t mean that morality doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t even mean that most people don’t have a very similar sense of morality. For instance, almost everyone would agree that in most cases, lying is wrong. In almost all cases, people would agree that giving to charity is a good thing. Very rarely do people ever endorse drunk driving. You don’t need to be a Christian to know that things like drug addiction, stealing, alcoholism, and cheating on your spouse are not good things. And most people aren’t too fond of murder. There are some very clear injustices in the world that both Christians and atheists can agree are injustices. We may not always agree on how to deal with those injustices, but at least we can agree that each and every one of us does evil and selfish things sometimes. Both atheists and Christians alike need accountability.

The Satire and Emotion of Genesis 1

This could get a little less interesting now, but I want to write a little bit more about Genesis 1. I love that chapter of the Bible and I think I could make myself more clear about how I read it. Simply put, I don’t read Genesis 1 as a historical account of origins. I could elaborate on what I think of the Bible later, but the Bible can’t be treated like a constitution, historical textbook, scientific textbook, or even a theological textbook. Rather, it tells a story about a God and how people understood him in their time and context. So it’s important when we read Genesis 1, we consider the historical context, and that’s how we find the meaning of the story.

So let’s take a look at some context. Considering some of the parallels, the Genesis story probably took some inspiration from the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation. This especially makes sense since scholars like Peter Enns would argue that the first five books of the Bible were compiled after the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 600 BC, though many parts of it were written centuries before. The Jews would have been looking for hope in their God, so they compiled their stories in which God conquered the other gods, especially those of the Babylonians. (Yes, early Jews did believe other gods existed.)

The Enuma Elish tells a story about a couple gods getting into a big fight and then one god killing the other goddess and ripping her corpse in half to create the earth and sky. This seems awfully chaotic, which might incite a Jewish author to write about the earth being without form and void. To me, that verse in Genesis 1 almost sounds satirical. The writer was making fun of the Enuma Elish. So they used the Enuma Elish as a starting point because the writer had something to say about who God was, particularly how he stood out from the other gods.

The people at the time Genesis was compiled would have been familiar with its symbols. Actually, the symbols were probably pretty important and well known to them at the time. It would almost be like Genesis dropping a familiar song lyric to us now. “And God said, ‘Let there be light. Come on let your colors burst.’” If we read the chapter as a literal historical account, we’d have to ignore the symbols because they were products of a culture of people and didn’t exist as symbols at the beginning of time (since people didn’t exist at the beginning of time). The symbols lose their meaning once we take the story literally because we’d be forced to read the text on the surface level.

So a couple important symbols would be the darkness and the water. Darkness and water seem to be symbols of God’s judgment. Darkness is one of the plagues on Egypt. After Cain kills Abel, he’s given a dark mark. Water is used as judgment in the story of Noah and the ark and then in the Exodus when the waters divided for the Israelites to escape but then converged to kill Pharaoh’s men. But what happens in Genesis 1? God divides the light from the dark, he divides the waters below and above, and then he divides the land from the sea. Darkness and water are symbolic of judgment, but God brings order to chaos through mercy and grace. The first readers and hearers of Genesis 1 may have understood it as telling of God’s mercy. He held back the darkness and he held back the waters.

Those were the first three days – (1) he separated day and night, (2) he separated the sky (the mythical waters above) from the ocean (the mythical deep waters), and (3) he pushed the sea from the land – but the next three days coincide the with the first three. Day four, he fills the day and night with the sun, moon, and stars. Day five, he creates birds and sea creatures to fill the sky and sea. And then on day six, he creates land animals and people. He creates sustainers and symbols of his mercy in each of these kingdoms he created.

Then, on the seventh day, God rested. John Walton would say that this rest indicates that God spent the past six days establishing his temple. Gods always rested in temples. The Babylonians built temples for their gods, but this God created his own temple, and guess what, his temple is everywhere. How comforting that is to a group of people who felt like God had turned his back on them. How amazing to know that God cares enough for them to have spent six whole days creating their home, to know that God loves them enough to invite them to live in his temple, to know that even when things look grim, God’s holding it all together. And how comforting that can be to those of us who are searching for us today.

I made the argument a few posts back that if we keep just using God as the explanation for the unexplained, then we’ll find that maybe eventually God could be made irrelevant. Science will answer many of our questions and we won’t have a lot of unexplained to rely on God to explain. I don’t believe God is just the explanation for the unexplained, though. I believe he’s the explanation for everything. He’s the sustainer and creator of all things. So even when science answers all of my questions about what is seen (which is really an exciting thing!), it doesn’t take away God. I’m even more amazed at how God is working in the unseen.

N.T. Wright said that talk of divine intervention or “God things” is almost like deism. When we can’t explain something, we call it a miracle of God. But isn’t that saying that God is distant and only works in a few situations every once in a while? Genesis 1 says that God doesn’t work here and there sometimes. It says that he is active and in control all the time. He is holding the universe together on a cosmic scale and on a microscopic scale and on some kind of individual emotional scale. And that’s pretty comforting to me as a guy sitting in a chair somewhere in a solar system that is hurtling through the galaxy at half a million miles an hour. So I choose to believe it.

The Distraction of “Religious Liberty”

Who are the marginalized in our world? There are many religious people who would like everyone to believe that it’s the Christians who are being marginalized. That’s pretty evident by the success of some recent Christian films that portray Christians as a victimized minority. There’s a reason for that, too. It’s easier to rally troops for a culture war if you get them thinking the other side instigated it. The other side is trying to take away our religious liberties, so we have to defend the faith against the oppressors, stand up for God, and make America the great Christian nation it once was. But could this culture war just be a distraction from the true call of the gospel?

In the first century, Rome inhabited the Promised Land. The Pharisees, a sect of Judaism, weren’t too keen on that. Besides, wasn’t it their God who gave them that land in the first place? They knew their history: God gave them the land when the Israelites drove the Canaanites out. The Pharisees were sure that God would send the Jewish people a savior to drive the Romans out of their land. In essence, they wanted someone who was going to defend their faith against the oppressors, stand up for God, and make their land the great Jewish nation it once was. They got Jesus instead.

Jesus came along with a message that basically let the Pharisees know they had gotten completely off track. While they were so focused on separating the Jews from the Gentiles, hoarding the wealth so the tax collectors couldn’t get their grubby hands on it, and keeping the dirty mixed-bred Samaritans out of their Bible studies, they were forgetting that God is the God of everyone. They had forgotten God’s original promise to Abraham: “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). God’s plan was always a plan for all people everywhere, but the message of the Pharisees bred hostility.

The Pharisees marginalized those who they felt were wrecking God’s plan for them. They had their judgments against the sinners and tax collectors and the Roman people. They ignored the diseased and hurting because they were defiled before the temple of God. But Jesus spent his time with the sinners, tax collectors, Romans, diseased, and hurt people because God was never confined to the walls of a temple. He was coming to be amongst the people. The kingdom of heaven is within reach!

When we play the victim, we do nothing but breed hostility. When we (wrongly) paint ourselves as the minority that just needs to rise above the immorality of the rest of the world, we widen the gap between them and us, and we forget our calling in the world. The Church was never meant to be just for the Church. The Church is for the world, but Christians tend to see the world as in constant moral decline. It fits our comfortable narrative that one day when things get bad enough, Jesus is going to come back and save us from it. But what about all of the good that’s happening in the world? It’s hard to see with the news media screaming at us about Ebola, ISIS, and God forbid another corporation that’s for marriage equality. But as it turns out, the poverty and hunger in the world has decreased, war and crime has dropped, awareness and funding for disease has increased, and efforts to end human trafficking and pornography are on the rise. These are good things, and we as the Church can either ignore them, or we can join in with the salvation of the world.

Salvation comes in small steps. When a rich man asked Jesus how to have a fulfilling life, Jesus told him to stop worrying about his own life and start concerning himself with the lives of others (Matthew 19). We’re called not to rise above our enemies, but to love them. If the sinners, tax collectors, and poor people were the marginalized in Jesus’ day, then who are the religious people marginalizing in ours? I’d say it’s the poor people, but it can also be unwed parents, atheists, LGBT people, unemployed people, illegal immigrants, and other religious people. If you want to practice your religious liberty, be a friend to those who seem to be your enemies and see where they can join in to work toward ending the injustices in the world and really see the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Barista, could you please turn my water into wine?

Everyone loves a good story about some hipster storming back into a Starbucks store to complain that they messed up his drink. The best stories are the ones where the guy gets so over-the-top indignant that it’s almost Instagram-worthy. The video will look great about four rows above that photo of the grande caramel macchiato with almond milk and no whipped crème (pronounced with a trill of the ‘R’ and without a hint of diphthong or irony), and three rows above a similar photo with your name misspelled because isn’t it soooo ironic? (You’re right, it’s not.) It’s funny, but hey, you’re not complaining about it like that guy was, right?

We love hearing stories about people who overreact because they make us feel sane. If we can all agree that that dude is horrible, we don’t feel so horrible. But what we might not understand fully is that that guy’s drink isn’t just a drink. It’s who he is. His Starbucks drink is part of his identity.

I’m nowhere near saying that someone’s overreaction over a mistake is justifiable. Rather, I’m considering what the overreaction means for every one of us who live on this side of culture. There used to be a time when your identity had to do with what tribe you were a part of. You didn’t compete with people in your tribe to stand out. Everything you did was for the good of everyone else. That was your identity. Everyone had a name, but the important name was the name of your father. That’s not the case for many of us anymore. In Japan (another consumer culture), fewer and fewer people are getting married or even getting into relationships because why be concerned with bettering yourself for another person? Shopping can’t dump you. Tribes are primitive, and we live in a time in which the individual is elevated over the group. Be yourself. Be unique. Buy my stuff.

What?

Yeah, our individualism is so closely connected with our consumer culture they’re practically the same thing. Why do all those Apple products start with an ‘I’? It’s because they are mine. No two iPhones have the same apps, no two Chipotle burritos look the same (but they can both fit in my stomach please), and no two caramel macchiatos have the same fixin’s. Everything is customizable because that’s what sells. We’re not just buying products; we are buying identities.

Think about a name. My name is Ben, but a name is so arbitrary. I didn’t choose my name. It’s just a symbol for me. In fact, it’s a symbol shared by thousands of other people who are absolutely nothing like me. But my name is so closely tied to my identity that when someone forgets my name, I feel a little hurt. Just a little.

Society is culture, and our culture is heavily consumerist. So when our sense of individualism comes from what we consume, our identities become what we consume. That’s why Facebook publishes things we “like”. We “like” certain products, brands, musicians, and movies because we are also products and brands of them. We want to communicate who we are to others externally, quickly, and easily, so we buy symbols to represent ourselves. It makes it easier for others to stereotype and categorize us.

What’s so wrong with this? Well, it makes us jerks to people serving our coffee, but we’re also objectifying ourselves, and when it comes to this day and age, objectifying people sucks. It’s great that we’re starting realize how often we do it, but the more we’re aware of it, the more we also ignore it. By identifying ourselves with objects, we make ourselves objects. We can basically window-shop for relationships because only those who represent the right brands are worthy of our time. Sounds like we’re pretty hopeless for any change, doesn’t it. Seems almost silly to even try.

So when the Starbucks barista screws up that hipster’s coffee, it’s not just an innocent mistake. It’s an unforgivable attack on the poor guy’s identity. So thanks a lot, barista. And you want minimum wage raised.

Genesis and Stories We Tell

Thousands and thousands of years ago, people like us thought about where they came from. Witnessing the mysteries of the world, they invented stories to explain the terrifying, beautiful, dangerous, and wonderful environment they lived in. Like their political systems, they assumed everything was ruled by something, so they shared stories, memes, about gods. With all the chaos in the world, something has to be behind it. Someone has to be throwing a cosmic tantrum. So they made up a story about a couple gods beating the crap out of each other until one got so fed up that he ripped the other god’s spine out and then the universe was created.

The gods of these stories then went on to demand so much from these people that they didn’t mean to create. According to the memes of the people, the gods were partial to the sweet scent of burning animals and vegetables, so the powerless, confused people produced the incense of the gods to try and get what they wanted from the gods. There weren’t institutions for this form of worship. People weren’t trying to profit from the religious practices of the day.

It wasn’t until later that some people thought this story was a little weird. They were into all the sacrifices to the gods, but they believed their god was stronger than the others. They believed their god was really in charge. Their god could be up your god. So they told a new story about their god, Elohim. Elohim wasn’t like the other gods. He was benevolent and loved talking to his people. He was present and active in their lives. He was a gardener and knew what was best for his people and his garden. In fact, he cared so much he spent six whole days repairing the formless void that the other gods made of his world after their hissy fit.

The darkness that pervaded the world bothered him so much that he couldn’t touch it; he had to hover over it and decide what he’d do with it. On the first day, he created the greatest and most necessary thing in the universe: Light. Those first three days, he separated the light from the darkness, the sky from the seas beneath, the land from the ocean, because he couldn’t unify anything without first separating it. Whereas the waters and darkness depicted chaos and blindness, Elohim revealed his beauty and mercy and love by holding them back.

Between these separations was space, so the next three days he filled in the gaps. He filled the light and darkness with lights. For years and years, people have marveled at those lights. People thought they were holes in a dome, people thought they were small and orbiting the world, now people know they’re larger and more numerous than we could possibly count. Elohim exhaled the lights and knows them all like the back of his hand. Then he filled the sea and sky with creatures. Then he filled the land with creatures.

Elohim was proud of his good creation. So proud that he called it his temple of rest, and knew just who to put in charge of it: someone who would be the image of his creativity and love. He got his hands dirty and meticulously crafted his clay pot that would bear his image and build his kingdom. So he whispered into the pot “Yahweh,” the spiritual, breathy name by which his pots would call him in their stories. He gave the pot flesh and blood and breath and creativity and he gave him the first human art project: name all of the other creatures. He gave this first human a companion and told them to multiple the image so there would be more to build the kingdom of Yahweh.

However, these first two humans disobeyed Yahweh. They chose to decide for themselves what was good instead of trusting Yahweh’s goodness, so they let the garden die and they took what they wanted from Yahweh’s creation without giving him thanks. They defiled Yahweh’s temple, one of the worst cultural sins of the time. Yahweh was distraught and he exiled them from the garden. Later on they would tell this story when they were exiled from their land. And so these people’s stories were left unresolved, but Yahweh had an amazing plan to resolve them.

These were some of the first stories Yahweh’s people told about him. They told these stories not because they knew they were factually true, but because they were what would unify the people. These stories would bring them one step closer to understanding the strange Person who held the world together, and thousands of years later they would still not have a complete grasp on who he is. They would continue to tell more and more stories, but it started with the aforementioned unresolved story that wouldn’t see resolution until centuries later. Even when the resolution came about, people denied it. It couldn’t be that simple. We didn’t wander forty years in the desert and then a thousand years in who-knows-where to worship a humble God. Our stories don’t include him becoming an introverted, subversive peasant and then dying a humiliating, anonymous death. Our God can’t disapprove of our stories about him. He has to follow the rules. He has to be careful. He has to know his place.

They were wrong, and that peasant proved they were wrong three days after his death. He defeated the death and emerged from the grave. He created the foundation of the kingdom that God was planning to build from the beginning and he invited all people to build upon the foundation. We were invited to spread the good news of resurrection and love and continue to be a part of the resolution to God’s story. Because when a story is really good, the ending to it echoes. It lingers and resonates in the stories of those who hear it and are changed by it. It connects us with its chaotic and confusing beginning so we can place ourselves in it and see how far we still have to go. But as a Christian, I still cling to the hope of healing, resurrection, new creation, and unity.

The Science of the Gods

Christians have often felt threatened by science, and it makes sense that they’ve felt that way. Science and religion haven’t had much of a history playing nice with one another, and both have placed the blame on the other for starting it. Religion says science hit them first and should be put in eternal torment time out away from our public schools and tax payers, but science says it was just over there minding its own business dissecting potato bugs or whatever when religion decided to excommunicate it from its playhouse.

There are religious people who say they have no problem with science as long as science behaves and doesn’t confuse theory for fact (while ignoring the point that in the science world, theory and fact are more synonymous than we think). As long as science sticks to what it knows for sure and keeps its crazy anti-religious mumbo-jumbo to itself, then they can fully, completely get on board with science. I don’t have a problem with science; science has a problem with me.

Religion feels threatened by science because religion feels victimized by science. It’s as if Christians feel they were just believing what they wanted and then, all of the sudden, angry scientists showed up and tried to prove everything they believed was wrong. That could be kind of true. We could look to the Enlightenment as a time in which religion was marginalized by science. But what if we looked at science in a different way? What if scientists were never out to disprove our faith? Perhaps their study and research used our faith as a leaping-off point. Maybe a scientist read something in the Bible thought it was really weird (as many things in the Bible seem to be) and was wondering if it could be explained? Or perhaps a scientist notices something interesting in nature and wants to explain it, which is what Charles Darwin did. They’re not setting out to disprove a belief. They’re just trying to understand our world, and that is why science feels so frustrated with religion. It sees religion as a roadblock.

However, I’m sure there are those who are trying to disprove a faith. There are scientists out to get religion, but religion shouldn’t feel threatened by them. Like religious people, scientists are also people of faith. In his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell wrote, “When someone says that we don’t understand something fully right now but we will given enough time, that is, of course, a belief. That’s faith. We aren’t at that point talking about people of faith versus people of science; we’re talking about all people of faith, just faith in different things.” Everyone who doesn’t have a full understanding of something (which is everyone) has to have faith. There are things in this universe that we cannot explain, but the atheistic scientist has faith that, one day, science will be able to explain those things.

That’s a valid faith. Science has had a history of explaining things that were previously unexplained, so it makes logical sense that there are unexplained things in our universe that science might one day be able to explain. However, many religious people have a mindset that the unexplained should remain unexplored territory. If we discover something in the universe that we can’t explain, religious people automatically put it into the God category. If we can’t explain something, then it must be God. So once science tries to explain it, religion gets indignant because as far as religion knows, that unexplained thing is God. For example, the amount of gravitational pull in the universe doesn’t match up with the amount of matter in the universe. There’s not enough matter for the amount of observable gravity. Religion might put that in the God box. It might pull out of context verses that say, In Christ all things hold together. (Col. 1:17), and say that Jesus is pulling the matter together where gravity can’t, and there’s the explanation. It’s God. So when science steps in and says maybe it’s something else, like antimatter, there’s gonna be some disagreement. Religion is threatened by that hypothesis and accuses science of trying to remove God from the world.

So someday if science actually does prove that it’s antimatter (maybe they already have; I’m not up to date on science since science isn’t all that interesting to me), then religion will have to take that out of the God box and keep searching out other unexplained things. It’s happened in the past, right? Back around the time the beginning of Genesis was written, people believed the gods were in control of the weather. If you shared enough of your crops with the gods, then they’d give you enough rain and sunshine for your next harvest. If you didn’t kill a ram and give up enough corn, then say hello to  the gods of drought and famine. That’s what they thought. The gods were controlling the weather based on what people did, and that’s how people explained the mystery of weather. But eventually science came along and discovered that weather is a natural thing that just happens regardless of what people do. And that’s been happening for thousands and thousands of years. Science has been explaining the unexplained things for years.

We live in a finite universe. Both religious and scientific people agree with that. This stuff probably won’t last forever and it probably has borders. So here’s a completely hypothetical thought experiment: what if someday everything is eventually explained? We’ve explored every nook and cranny of the universe and we know everything there is to know about it. Does that mean God would be irrelevant? If someday, science can explain how a virgin could give birth or how a man could rise from the dead or how a bush could burn without being consumed, then does that mean God doesn’t exist or there’s no reason for God anymore? Not if you believe that God exists for more than just confusing scientists. Because to say that God is the explanation for the unexplainable is to say that God has been the explanation for fewer and fewer things throughout history. (I’m putting things in bold now.) Many things that religion used to explain as God are now explained by science as something else.

But God is still relevant, and I believe he’ll always be relevant. Maybe he won’t always be intellectually relevant (science has been able to explain things like faith healing, speaking in tongues, and the good feelings you get at the crescendo of “How He Loves”), but he’ll be emotionally and socially relevant. Maybe Christ doesn’t physically hold all things together, but perhaps everything is held together in God’s love. Broken relationships can be restored, the environment can be replenished, the water crisis can be fixed, the space debris problem can be solved, and the poverty line can be breached all through love. And through love, science and religion can come together to understand how this amazingly vast universe works.

Beliefs about Belief

If all of your religious beliefs ended up being false, would your life up until now have been a waste?

If you’re a Christian like me and grew up a Christian, you probably attended a gathering of others with similar beliefs, ate stale crackers and drank grape juice in unsatisfyingly small portions, talked to someone invisible and kinda stalker-ish, woke up at an unreasonable hour each morning to read some ancient literature a few thousand years and an Atlantic Ocean removed, and learned how to tell your friends about how you do all these things and they should too without them recommending a good place to get an MRI.

Of course, you never did any of those things for no reason. You did them because you believed in them, and like me, you might still believe in them. But there’s this thing about our culture or our language or our society that doesn’t know how to distinguish between beliefs and certainty. The atheist student doesn’t just believe that God doesn’t exist; he is certain that God doesn’t exist. The religious summer camper doesn’t just believe that she’s going to heaven after she dies; she’s certain she’s going to heaven after she dies. The rightwing pastor doesn’t just believe that God’s pouring his wrath and judgment out on America; he’s certain of it. This is a modern society. We’re not supposed to be uncertain because we presume that everyone who disagrees with us demands that we be unwaveringly certain of what we believe in. So we learn to get defensive and we divide ourselves from others and we refuse to be friendly because others who are certain of what they believe are just wrong and we who are certain of what we believe are right.

The truth is, there isn’t a whole lot in life to be certain of. Considering that the observable universe is about 13.8 billion years old and so big that they measure it in years, how can we possibly claim to be certain that the things we have to explain our Sunday mornings also explain everything else in the universe? If God exists (which I live as though he does) and he’s the God of everything (see previous parenthesis), then it’s the pinnacle of arrogance to think we can fully know him, explain him in the limited pages of a perfectly marketed book, confine him to our walls, and call him ours.

I wanna go back to the original question, then: what if your religion were false? Does that mean all those things you did and do are wastes of time? Here’s what I believe about beliefs: they are not simply cognitive; they are those things you did and still do. Those things we do because of our beliefs are our beliefs. We live in such a way because our ways of life are what we believe. When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, he didn’t give them a list of things they had to be certain of before following him, he told them to believe and follow him. The fact that they followed him was their belief. I’m sure they had doubts, but cognitive doubt and belief aren’t opposites. We may doubt, but our belief is evident in what we do despite our doubts.

If your beliefs mean that you are taking steps backwards, you are becoming more judgmental, more cynical, more spiteful, less caring, and more divisive, then maybe you should reevaluate what you believe. But if your beliefs mean that you are increasing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then hold on to those beliefs with all you have. Those are the beliefs that give your religion purpose. Those beliefs are going to be different for different people (we’re all wired a little differently), and maybe some will be objectively right and others wrong, but no matter what the capital-‘T’ Truth is, your beliefs will not be wasted if they cause you to love more. It’s time we release our need to know for sure and embrace the wonder and exploration that comes with not knowing. The unknown elicits fear, but love casts out fear. Love demands open-mindedness and understanding different perspectives on a deeper level. Isn’t that what God displayed when he became a man?

Poor Little Things

Objectifying people is wrong. Most everyone knows and agrees with that. There has been an amazing movement in our society toward becoming more aware of how we objectify women and limit their freedom of expression. We’re also beginning to understand how social media objectifies people and turns them into consumer products. We sure have a long way to go to view all people as subjective beings, but I think we’re headed in a great direction.

However, there is a certain objectification that happens within American Christianity that I believe we are completely unaware of. These thoughts of mine are still in development, but like most of what I write about, I’d like to inspire discussion so we can see if any of these ideas have validity. My hypothesis is that we in American Christianity can tend to objectify the poor, the starving, and, in general, the poorest of the poor in the third world. And we do this in a few different ways:

 

How we view spiritual needs versus physical needs

We are extremely comfortable in America. We complain about our jobs, airline food, and reality television because we literally have nothing else to complain about. Our phone batteries die too soon. Our McDoubles weren’t brought out to us quick enough. There’s a speck in my water! So with all of our physical needs provided for, we still have to have a reason for religion.

In the ancient world, the reason for religion was clear. People would sacrifice to the gods because they believed that if they didn’t please the gods, they wouldn’t have a harvest of crops, and they would die. So keeping the gods happy was important. The ancient Israelites were in constant threat of extinction, so they made sacrifices to God because they wanted God to help take out their enemies, and not to dinner.

In Jesus’ time, the reason for the Jewish religion was so that God would bring about justice to the world and God would finally establish his kingdom and glorify his people who have gone through thousands of years of adversity. Religion was always about God providing for his people. But Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God was one that said that God’s justice is for all people in this world.

Today in America, where we have little need for God to supernaturally provide for our physical needs in this life, we believe God’s provision is about our individual spiritual needs, and that means forgiveness of sin. But that thinking doesn’t really apply to the poor whose physical needs are more pressing than their spiritual needs. But we still stress the importance of forgiveness of sins for those people when that isn’t what they’re looking for. We create a dichotomy between spiritual needs and physical needs when God’s provision addresses both at the same time.

 

The American narratives that we perpetuate

Consider some of our Christian buzz phrases: “God will never give you more than you can handle;” “God has a plan to prosper you and he has a purpose for your life;” “Bless the Lord, and he will bless you.” That last one’s a little less common and accepted, and the first one is on it’s way out. But while many people are wondering where their next meal is coming from, we Americans are telling our kids to follow God’s plan for their lives. (The Christian way of saying “follow your dreams.”) These ideas of prosperity and good plans don’t seem to apply to the poor third world. At least, not in this life where they’re not always sure if they’ll even live to see tomorrow.

How fortunate we are to even be able to think about longterm goals! How fortunate we are to have time to pray, read the Scriptures, and build a relationship with God so that he can apparently reveal those longterm plans to us. How can we say we have to listen to God to find out who we’re going to marry, which college to go to, which job to apply for if for many other people, they have to live like they might lose everything at any moment? If God isn’t telling them every specific detail about how he wants them to live their lives, how can we say that it’s because their not connected to God enough?

If we convert a poor person to Christianity, are we going to tell them the same things we tell more prosperous people? They have to get plugged in with a faith community now, and they have to become a member and serve in the church, and they have to tithe to the church. Of course we’re not going to tell them that. But for us American Christians, getting involved with a church and tithing to it are vital. If it’s vital for Christians to do those things, why isn’t it vital for everyone? The things we believe and narratives we perpetuate cannot be so black and white.

 

Our view of the afterlife

The traditional view of the afterlife is one that suggests that we go somewhere after we die. We either go to heaven or hell after we die. This thinking isn’t unique to Christianity. Many people who aren’t even necessarily religious think there might be some kind of afterlife. For American Christians, the afterlife has become a priority. We ask evangelistic questions like, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d go?” So with much of the focus on the afterlife, our purpose becomes making sure everyone ends up going to the right place after they die.

However, that doesn’t make much sense in light of how we talk about the poverty-stricken in the third world. Many of us cannot physically present the gospel to the third world because distance is a factor. So we donate to charities that give them fresh water and food and clothes because that’s what Jesus told us to do and that’s how we become more like Christ. Could that be a form of exploitation, though? Doing good things makes us look more like Jesus, but if we only do good things just to make us look more like Jesus, that’s very individualistic and egocentric. Our view of the afterlife is so prominent, but the third world isn’t necessarily aware of their need for a savior from their sins. In American Christianity, doing good things for the third world isn’t about ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s about our individual Christlikeness. And so the third world people become objects that we use to make ourselves more Christlike.

The Kingdom of God is not just about an afterlife. It’s not just about God forgiving individuals of their sins. It’s about God removing the sins of the entire world and bringing about justice so there are no more tears and no more pain. We cannot view the world through the lens of American culture and comfort. We cannot impress spiritual needs on people as if they are separate from physical needs. We must remember that God is the good provider for all and that he can use his Church (if we’re willing), not to call them out of the world, but to bless the world for the sake of the world. And then one day, we can see God’s Kingdom come in this world and we’ll see justice for a Church of all tribes and tongues.