Quality of life and suffering

In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”

One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.

Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?

I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God.  Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.

Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.

(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)

A political quote from Cal Thomas

My brother David posted this quote on facebook.

“But followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, should not think that having the “right” person in office will somehow restore righteousness to a fallen and sin-infested world. How can a fallen leader repair a fallen society? He (or she) can’t. Only God can do that through changed lives. And lives can be changed only by the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it has always bee…n so. As revivals of the past have shown us, the social impact was astounding. So if believers want to see a culture improved (fewer abortions, less drunkenness, fewer divorces, and so on), let their objective be to lead more people to Christ. Those converts will then be “transformed by the renewing of their minds,” and societal transformation will follow. It’s bubble- up, not trickle-down. The problems we face come from our forgetting God and worshipping the golden calf of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In material things and pleasure we trust, not God. That’s why He gives us over to the consequences of an unrestrained lower nature. Politics can’t redeem us from that.” Cal Thomas (Former VP of Communications for the Moral Majority in the 1980s)

He asked everyone to say what they thought about it. He plans on blogging about his own reaction tomorrow.

Here is my response.

I agree somewhat. But I think:
  • It makes it sound like we have no one converted right now. Sure, we should keep focusing on evangelism, and that should make an impact on society. But I think it’s a mistake to think that, because we are seeing society change for the worse, that therefore we haven’t been evangelizing enough. I’m sure we haven’t been, but I’m not sure this era is much worse than any other.

There are certainly times of revival when a bunch of evangelism happens and a bunch of conversions happen, but I think those are both more a product of the revival rather than a cause of it.

  • Although it is true that “These converts will be ‘transformed by the renewing of their minds’ and societal transformation will follow”, it does not happen very quickly on its own. Transformation at the level that affects society and politics is sometimes very slow.

We (the church) can speed it up by discipling one another more in the area of thinking politically and socially. That’s tricky, because we don’t even always know what we should be thinking about politics and society.

It’s certainly more complicated than giving people a scorecard for the candidates. We can’t think of discipleship in political areas as a means to an end — the end of winning politically — but as simply growing in our understanding of how Christianity affects everything.

  • If we are doing a good job of evangelizing, there will be as many liberal Democrats getting saved and growing as there will conservative Republicans. Therefore, the body of Christ will be frustratingly diverse when it comes to political convictions. In the long run, this will be a strength for us politically, as long as we are willing to work with it.
  • I very much agree that part of thinking Christianly is to realize that we do not belong to this world. We are citizens of another kingdom. Like Paul, we can use our earthly citizenship for the glory of God, but ultimately we do not belong here and our national identities are not our true identities.

Nonetheless, as Christians who anticipate Jesus’ return to earth to restore society, we should be foreshadowing his return by combatting wickedness and promoting goodness wherever we can.

  • Sometimes systems, cultures, and laws are set up so that they promote evil. We need to see that there can be a value in changing them.

Reasons for belief

Since Kate linked to my blog today, I guess I’d better post something here!

I have big plans for the blog in the future, but I am not ready to launch them yet, so I’ve been dormant this semester. Let me just post something brief about something I’ve been mulling over lately.

When I got saved, one of the most important things about the whole experience was the nearly palpable presence of the Holy Spirit during the process. I didn’t hear any audible voice, but I sure felt as though God were carrying on a conversation with me in my head. I asked questions and seemed to hear answers. I asked for help with the fear that had so often prevented me from coming to Christ, and the Holy Spirit sent waves of spine-tingling, overwhelming peace to combat it. At a key moment, I suddenly switched from thinking of Jesus as “out there somewhere” for me to believe in or not, to thinking of Him as face to face with me, by means of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I wasn’t listening to myself asking “Do I believe in Jesus?” I was listening to Jesus ask me directly, “Do you believe in Me?”

Without all this supernatural stuff, I probably wouldn’t have believed.

So, in a sense, the foundation of my belief in God is the personal experience I had of his supernatural communication with me at the key moment.

Later, I was taught that if I was going to persuade others to believe, I wasn’t supposed to rely on my subjective experience with God, but on various measurable, objective evidences and arguments for the existence of God. That made sense: I couldn’t really share my own experience with others, but I could point them to the reasons they should believe based on logic or nature.

At the same time, and somewhat in contradiction to the first idea, I was encouraged to use Scripture when I talked to unbelievers, because the Scripture alone would convict them of its truth. In other words, if I used Scripture, I had hope that God would bring to them the same kind of supernatural conviction of the truth of the gospel that I had experienced. That seems pretty Biblical to me. The New Testament, in particular, seems to trace people’s faith back to a foundational experience of hearing the spoken word of the gospel and realizing, by God’s grace, that it must be true. For those who heard the gospel and were moved to believe it, the word was self-authenticating.

Then I went through a 20-year drought in terms of the subjective experience of God. Recently, with that drought apparently over, I have been rediscovering my original sense of the supernatural presence of God, and remembering how much of my early faith was always based on that kind of thing.

But is it right that my faith should be based on my own experience? It seems like that puts me at the center of everything instead of God. Yet putting my faith in measurable evidences isn’t really better. I don’t believe in Christ because I am scientifically or logically convinced: my faith in science and logic just isn’t that strong. Putting objective human knowledge at the center of everything doesn’t seem any more Christ-centered than putting subjective human experience there.

Some apologists argue for a “presuppositional approach”. According to them, we start by simply acknowledging our presuppositions — belief in the Bible, for example, is the typical one. Then, we believe other things on that basis. That makes sense to me, but still leaves the question of how I came to be sure of the presuppositions to start with.

The most recent insight that I’ve had is the value of thinking of my experience of God at salvation as a sign pointing to the God behind it. In fact, I can think of every human experience, everything that I can come to know as a human, as a sign to the God who is bigger than my ability to know.

The point is this: if God reaches me through a subjective experience, and through that experience points me to Himself, then I can transfer my trust from the sign itself to what it points to. There is a difference between what led me to faith, chronologically, and that upon which I rest my faith, ultimately. I came to Christ through certain human experiences, but I chose to interpret those experiences as signs of a God standing behind them. Then I put my faith in that God, not in the signs by which I came to believe in Him. Others have come to Christ by means of objective evidences in nature or logical arguments about a first cause or the fine-tuning of the universe. Hopefully, they too have transferred their trust from these specific evidences to the God to whom the evidences pointed.

Is this saying anything new? Or am I just putting the words in a different order? Just finding a new way to talk about presuppositional apologetics? I think this is new, and important, but I’m not sure. It’s all pretty complicated stuff.

Anyway, I think part of my calling when I talk to other people, both believers and unbelievers, is to help them notice the signs of Himself that God has put in their own lives, and help them interpret them properly, so that they can see to whom the signs are pointing.

A Christmas Meditation

(I wrote this for Kate‘s newsletter.)


A couple of weeks ago, I spent some extended time with God. I was in the middle of a potential tragedy in my life, and seeking for solace of some kind, for a reminder that God was in control and cared.

I started by singing some hymns. Specifically, Christmas carols. One of the songs I ended up singing said this:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

In my mind I couldn’t help picturing the scene: cold, still, lonely, silent. No one around for miles and miles. It sounds sad, but it didn’t make me feel sad. In my imagination it was beautiful and strange and other-worldly.

I felt as though God were giving me imagery to match my mood, and showing me the beauty in being there with Him. The next verse said:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Now the first Christmas, from the little I understand, may not have taken place in snowy December but in temperate March. Still, I can see why songwriters through the ages were drawn to the picture of God quietly invading earth on a clear, moonlit, freezing night.

A more familiar carol says this:

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight. 

and, in the third verse,

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

As I clung to God that day, I felt like those songs. My world was frozen at that moment in time. God was asking for me to just wait for the moment to come when he would quietly step in with His salvation.

* * * * *

Scripture paints a similar picture. Here is Psalm 147:16-17

He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?

Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise. When Jewish believers sang this psalm in the temple, they were acknowledging the fearful power of God. God’s is sovereign. God is transcendent.

Sometimes we come face to face with the universe and realize just how little we are. God is infinitely mightier than the universe. Winter turns to summer and then to winter again, but it is all part of God’s plan. Storms arise and subside, but nothing is ever out of his control.

Look at the same verses in context:

He sends forth His command to the earth;
His word runs very swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?
He sends forth His word and melts them;
He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow.

Everything happens according to God’s decree. When he decrees winter, there is winter. When he decrees an ice storm, there is an ice storm. But it is all under control. The day comes when he sends forth his word to thaw the frozen ground. He sends forth his wind to warm the ice. Spring arrives.  Waters begin to flow again.

The Psalms were written to be sung in worship by God’s people in all sorts of circumstances. Their composers intended them to be taken not just literally but also as metaphors for the work of God in general. They expected people to relate the imagery to their own lives as they sang. Someone might sing, “Who can stand before His cold?” and think, “That describe my life right now. I am undone by the things that are happening to me.” Then they would sing, “He sends forth His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow,” and think, “I long for the day when God sends forth His word to melt the ice in my life. I long for the day when His Spirit will set the waters flowing again.” They would go on singing praise in hope of the deliverance coming one day.

Which brings us back to Christmas:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

Here is one last song about God quietly stepping in to our cold world to save us.

           Welcome To Our World


The Christmas carols were:
In the Bleak Midwinter, text by Christina G. Rossetti, 1830-1894
O Little Town of Bethlehem, text by Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, 15th cent. German; trans. by Theodore Baker

John 8:12-20

Here is the passage:

John 8:12-20

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

So the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying about yourself; your testimony is not true.”

Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.

You judge according to the flesh;I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.

Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

So they were saying to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.”

These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; and no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.

Theme and structure of the passage

On first reading, this passage seems to be fairly unstructured. It looks like this:

  1. Jesus says something really important about being the light of the world.
  2. The Pharisees challenge his claim.
  3. Jesus spends a lot of time talking with the Pharisees about their attitudes to him and his testimony.

In other words, it looks like everyone gets distracted. It seems to be one long rabbit trail leading away from verse 12.

However, I think this first impression is deceptive. I think there is a remarkable integrity to the passage. Every piece of it is important, and it all serves to drive home the same theme, the theme that Jesus is our light.

The light that is Jesus

Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and that everyone who follows him does not walk in darkness but has the light of life. What is the practical meaning of walking in darkness or having the light of life?

I would like to suggest that the passage makes most sense if we interpret the light / darkness here in terms of our understanding of life rather than our behavior. Jesus is not saying, “If you follow me, you’ll make good decisions and not stumble.” He is saying, “If you follow me, life will make sense for you. You’ll be able to grasp its meaning. You’ll know what you are here for.”

The light of the Pharisees

The Pharisees respond by saying “You are testifying about yourself, so your testimony is not true.” Of course they didn’t mean that they knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking truth; they meant that what he said didn’t count as valid testimony. It didn’t follow their rules of what testimony had to be. It didn’t prove anything for Jesus to claim it.

The Pharisees were experts at argumentation and debate. They had established procedures, based on the law and on logical thinking, for getting at the truth. They were objecting here that Jesus wasn’t meeting their standard for evidence. There were rules for submitting your testimony to a court of law or a theological body, and Jesus wasn’t following those rules.

The Pharisees didn’t think they needed anyone to be the light of life for them. They already understood what life was about. Their light was their knowledge. Their light was their methodology for establishing truth.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, they did what they always did with claims like that. They judged it by their own light. They asked, “according to our methods for finding out truth, does this qualify?” It didn’t.

The conflict

The problem was, Jesus wasn’t submitting his claim to them for their adjudication. He wasn’t saying, “if you use your already-established system for discovering theological truth, you’ll find that a part of it is Me”. He was saying that he superseded their methodology.

I teach a philosophy class in which one unit is on proofs for and against the existence of God. Some people argue that God exists, others argue that God doesn’t exist, and there is a lot of disagreement. Yet, everyone seems to agree on one thing: we humans are capable of finding out the truth for ourselves, if we just look hard enough. The default philosophical view of rationality seems to be that we can start from an unbiased, neutral standpoint, carefully sift all the evidence around us, and come to a measured and intelligent decision about God.

Scripture says differently. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that God has deliberately worked in such a way that intellectual pride will never lead us to Him. He has set things up so that we are blinded to him by any attempt to find him on our own.

The Pharisees were making the same mistake as my philosophy students. Jesus said he is the light of the world. He said that we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life if we follow him.

The Pharisees said, “We don’t walk in darkness right now. We already understand life. We already know how truth works. We ourselves aren’t confused: our job is to cast light on all the things that confuse other people. We know the law really well, and we know how to reason from it. Just show us your claim and we will be able to tell you if it is correct.”

Here, then, is the situation in John 8: Jesus says we can only understand reality if we follow him. The Pharisees already had a way to understand life, so they thought. They were willing to test his claim, but they didn’t realize he was actually challenging their very methodology. He was asking them to abandon their intellectual self-sufficiency.

What follows is Jesus’ attempt to get them to see that it was their very assumptions about how to decide what is true that he was calling into question.

First response: we need to see beyond the temporal

At first, Jesus sets aside the Pharisees’ concerns about method. The Pharisees were looking for proof. They should have been looking for truth. “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true.”

Why is it that Jesus is able to know and speak the truth about himself, while the Pharisees are not? Because they aren’t working with all the facts: he knows where he came from and where he is going, and they do not.

From a merely human perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who said some startling things and did some amazing miracles. From the Father’s perspective, he was the eternal son of God, who had come to earth in the form of a man, and who planned to die for us, rise from the dead, and ascend back into heaven where he would rule as both Lord and Christ. Jesus didn’t tell them all these details yet, but he he hinted. He pointed out, here and on other occasions, that he came from heaven, and would one day return there.

What does this make a difference? Because what matters is not just Jesus’ three years of ministry in Palestine. What matters is the larger meaning of his life in history and in eternity. What matters is what he came to do, and where from, and what the outcome would be. If we follow Jesus as a good moral teacher only, we still walk in darkness. It is only when we follow Jesus as the the one sent from God, as the Savior, as the One whose name is above every name, that we find he is the light of life for us.

The Pharisees, though, couldn’t see the full significance of Jesus, because their perspective was limited. It had to be limited. As finite human beings, they were only aware of what was in front of them in the early first century. They couldn’t possibly know all the facts.

We are in the same boat. We just don’t know enough as humans to be able to figure out the truth on our own. We can’t find the light of life as long as we are restricted to temporal reality and ignore the eternal.

Second response: we need to see beyond the physical

Nor can we find the light of life if we are restricted to physical reality and ignore the spiritual.

“You judge according to the flesh,” says Jesus.

Sometimes when the Bible says we do something “according to the flesh” it means that our actions arise from sinful motives. Other times it simply means we do it physically (for example, in 2 Corinthians 10:3). In my opinion, that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense here. Jesus’ primary meaning isn’t, “You are judging from sinful hearts”, but “You are judging based on outward appearances.” Human knowledge, on its own, is inherently limited to physical evidence. Because we cannot get past that, we cannot make sense of life by ourselves.

Third response: we need to see beyond our own expertise

“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone.” What does Jesus mean by judging? I think he is referring to the kind of judgment the Pharisees are engaged in: they had set themselves up as the arbiters of truth. They had appointed themselves the job of approving or disapproving everyone else’s moral and religious claims.

Jesus says, “I’m not playing your game. I have nothing to prove. I’m not interested in arguing about theological systems. I’m simply stating the truth.” Not that he couldn’t argue if he wanted to: “Even if I do judge, my judgment is true …”. It’s just that, again, in claiming to be the light of the world, he was setting aside all merely human systems of knowledge.

Fourth response: we can’t find the truth alone

“[E]ven if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.”

When my philosophy students ask whether God exists, the one thing they never think to do is to ask God to reveal himself to them. Secular reasoning often starts from the standpoint of an independent neutral observer. Whatever we can discover for ourselves, we will believe. Whatever we cannot discover for ourselves, we will reject. We are self-sufficient in our rationality. (Even neutrality can be seen as a studied independence from whoever might influence us.) I’m not saying that people actually succeed in being independent and neutral, just that they aspire to be.

The Pharisees, as religious as they were, functioned the same way. They were theologically self-sufficient. They accepted that God had given them the law, but, having received it, they wanted to work the rest of it out on their own.

Jesus, in contrast, says that he is not alone in his judgment, but is united with the Father in it.

I think it would be a mistake to think of Jesus and the Father as being two independent sources of testimony. Even though that may be the ideal in a court of law, it is not the ideal when it comes to ultimate truth. Jesus doesn’t just hold the same opinion as the Father, he forms it in partnership with the Father.

Specifically, Jesus says, his judgment is united with “the Father who sent me“. Because he is defined by where he came from and where he is going, because he is called by the Father and lives within that calling, his every judgment is shaped by that calling. He does not hold his judgment alone, for it is the natural side-effect of the Father’s creative shaping of his life.

The Pharisees are limited because their lives consist of a narrow slice of time in a small corner of the universe.They are also limited because they isolate themselves voluntarily. Their relationship to God, as they see it, is to figure out for themselves what he meant and then obey it. Even though they appoint themselves as judges of the truth on behalf of God, they never seek to discover their calling from God. They do lots of thinking about God, but don’t wonder what God thinks of them. The consequence is, they miss the experience of finding that God has led them to the truth.

Fifth response: we can’t find the truth outside of Jesus

Finally, Jesus responds on their own terms. At least he appears to: “Even in your own law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

It doesn’t help, though, because they can’t talk to God directly they way they can to people. (And they certainly can’t interrogate him!) They want a way to evaluate truth that depends on humanly measurable factors. So they ask him, “Where is your father?”

I don’t think they were confused by what he meant – I think they knew he was talking about God. They ask “where is your father” to get him to admit that claiming “God agrees with me” isn’t really helpful evidence. Regardless, Jesus knew what he meant.

His response, though, is even more unhelpful! “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.” In other words, “You’ll know if I speak the truth if you ask my father, but to come to know my father you’ll have to trust me first.”

There is a vicious circle here. They can’t prove to themselves that Jesus speaks the truth until they are sure the Father agrees with him, and they can’t be sure the Father agrees with him until they are willing to trust what he is saying. Logic won’t help because the vicious circle corresponds to a circular argument.

This is precisely why the Pharisees are in such trouble. There just is no way to get from their methodology to the kind of trust and understanding Jesus requires. If we walk in darkness, we can’t see to find our way to the light. If Jesus doesn’t break into our lives with his truth, it will remain inaccessible to us. Only he is the light.

It would be easy to turn the first four stages of this passage into a 4 step process, a new method for finding the truth.

  • Step 1: take an eternal perspective
  • Step 2: take a spiritual perspective
  • Step 3: admit our ignorance
  • Step 4: look for help

But that only works if Jesus is in every stage. Jesus didn’t say “you don’t know where you come from and where you are going”, he said, “you don’t know where I come from and where I am going”. We can’t find eternal meaning in our own lives without first finding it in his life. We can only walk in our own relationship with Father when we find it through Jesus’ relationship with the Father. We can’t even know the Father except by knowing the Son.

The Pharisees thought they were being asked to judge Jesus’ claims. They weren’t. They were being told that everything they thought they knew was uncertain. They were being told that they were incapable of seeing truth without God’s intervention. They were being invited to find truth in Jesus. The single condition was that they stop thinking they could find truth without Jesus.

Does the Holy Spirit lead us?

A friend on facebook (Tim Dukeman) recently said:

- I’m deadly serious about this. God doesn’t speak through impressions, feelings, “leadings”, or any of that other nonsense. He speaks through the Bible.

- Nothing in the Bible would lead us to the idea that God speaks in these hyper-spiritual ways. If you hear an audible voice, we’ll talk.

But this “leadings” nonsense is paganism.

- I used to ask God for specific guidance. I have repented of such foolishness.

This was my response:

Tim, have you never read a Scripture and felt vaguely convicted, and then asked God to reveal to you the specific attitude or action you needed to repent of?

I do that all the time. I read something and ask the Spirit to search my heart and bring to mind whatever He wishes. Suddenly I’ll realize, “Oh! I’ve been arrogant. *That’s* not good.” So I’ll repent.

I consider that the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s Scripturally grounded, but goes “beyond” the Scripture in that He brings to mind something specific in my own life to which the Scripture corresponds. It’s a kind of “revelation” about my own circumstances and heart.

It’s not authoritative. I don’t even have to know whether it was my own insight or something God led me to think of. But it seems silly, after having asked God to guide my thoughts, to say that it is wrong to believe he actually did guide them.

I realize this is not what you meant. But I think it is what you should have meant.

Tim’s further response:

You are correct. That is an important caveat. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. If you feel convicted of sin after reading Scripture, that’s usually legitimate.

But what I said above stands.

Comments? I have a lot of other opinions on this, but I want to organize my thoughts a little before saying much more.



Book review: Suspicion & Faith

Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, by Merold Westphal

Westphal is a philosophy professor and a Christian.

The book is about the three modern philosophers Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. (OK, Freud isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he wrote philosophically relevant stuff, so I’m calling him one for now.) These three have become known as the “masters of suspicion” for the common approach they took in attacking Christianity.

As Westphal explains in this book, most of the atheists we’ve been exposed to practice skepticism rather than suspicion. That is, they try to debunk Christian claims by showing that they are false. The three discussed in this book took a different tack. They exposed the unworthy motives that they insisted lay behind Christian claims. Freud argued that religious beliefs are subconsciously generated by our secret desires and the guilt we feel about them; Marx said they arise as the inevitable result of class conflicts, and represent the justification of the rich and the pacification of the poor; Nietzsche saw them as the disguised resentment of the weak and cowardly against those who are willing to act powerfully, joyfully, and courageously. All three agree that Christians are not aware of their false motives, but they have them nonetheless.

There are ways to defend ourselves against such criticisms, but that isn’t Westphal’s point here. He wants to ask whether we can learn from the critiques. Should we take the charges seriously? Should we search our hearts in humility and repent of the things we’ve been charged with?

I really like that approach, and I want to take several paragraphs to discuss my view of it.

First, I think there is a place for doing apologetics, for defending ourselves against attacks by opponents of the faith, but I think there is also a place for asking whether we are guilty as charged. In my opinion, most attacks on Christian motives are exaggerated, but there is nearly always a seed of truth in them, and we need to consider how we should respond to that truth. We know that because of the example of David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-12) and because of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.

Furthermore, this approach is very much in line with my own gifts and personality. I thrive spiritually when I listen carefully to critics of Christianity. Once I understand clearly why they feel as they do, it deepens my own walk with God. (I have a corresponding weakness, in that it is difficult for me to shoot down false teaching when it needs to be refuted. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, but I am not sure what to say about it at this point.)

Anyway, there are a few different ways to respond to someone who is as hostile to one’s faith as the masters of suspicion. One, of course, is to reject everything they say as nonsense. I think that’s a bad approach.

Another is to capitulate too quickly; to just accept whatever charge they make as true and try to fix things. That way of dealing with their attacks isn’t much better. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche are so thoroughgoing in their rejection of everything remotely Christian, and their objections are so emotionally charged, that it isn’t spiritually healthy to accept their assumptions uncritically.

So a third way is to hold onto one’s Christian beliefs and then use the complaints of our critics to alert us to little things here and there that we can do a better job of. This is easy enough to figure out on a surface level. Marx says that Christianity is a justification of the rich and an opiate for the poor, so we think, “How can I be sure I am not ignoring the plight of the poor?” Nietzsche talks about disguised resentment, so we double-check our attitudes to be sure we have forgiven people. That’s not a very good response either, though; it’s too superficial.

The fourth, best way of responding to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche is to go deeper. We can’t just think about how they view Christians, and then try to make ourselves look better than that. To be content with that would be to miss their point. They claim that our wrong motives are a) embedded into our very identities at a deep level and b) almost completely unconscious. We can’t see the problem by simple self-reflection.

What we have to do instead is wrestle with some deep theology about original sin and the nature of self-deception in Scripture. We have to find the precise connections between that and the suspicions these three raise. We have to track down the ways in which the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are themselves corrupted by original sin. Finally, we have to look for ways to apply the insight this gives us to our lives, but we have to find, not just any application we can think of, but those which go to the heart of the matter.

Doing all this takes more than intellectual analysis: it takes humility, wisdom, balance, and especially time. It may take months or even years mulling over the basic charges being made, and doing so in inward conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Back to the book: that’s what I felt was missing when I read it. Westphal is completely right that there is value in working through how we need to repent in light of the masters of suspicion, but he didn’t help me see how to do so in any depth. I felt as though he used approach three. He just grabbed some obvious superficial applications and wrote some mild exhortations and platitudes about them.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s carefully thought all of this through, and what seemed glib was deep. Maybe he just presented it simply for the sake of his audience. If so, I needed less simplicity. I needed to see the depth.

So much for my disagreement with the book. There were also several things Westphal did well. That he wrote the book at all is great, because his general point is one that needs to be made. His explanations of all three philosophers were clear, thorough, and easy to understand. He is doctrinally sound and reasonable throughout.

Would I recommend the book? Probably not to most people, but I wouldn’t be worried about recommending it either.

Would I reread it? Probably I won’t, but if I wanted to take a closer look at his summaries of each philosopher, it’d be worth doing.

Even though I was hoping for more, I didn’t dislike the book. It didn’t raise any alarms in my mind. It didn’t make me mad. It was a mildly enjoyable read. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would put this around 4.

A few more questions

I’m overwhelmed by real life at the moment and it’s getting in the way of blogging. I have about 10 things I’ve started to write, but none of them has quite come together. So instead, here is a list, without much polish, of the things I’ve been wondering about recently.

Failure and success

Every few days all semester something or other I’ve tried to accomplish has gone very wrong for me. Sometimes it was a class, or leading Cru (Campus Crusade) or teaching my Sunday School class. Regardless, I get very discouraged.

I was trained to respond to failure by trying to learn from it and figure out how to succeed next time. These days, the idea that keeps coming into my head instead is that perhaps failure is not always a bad thing. Perhaps God wants me to remember that it doesn’t all depend on me. Perhaps relying on him for success means being willing for things to go badly sometimes, so that I have to rely on him even more. It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 12:9-11. I’ve come to think that it is sometimes God’s will for me to fail.

All this depends on the definition of failure, of course. If I try my best, and things go wrong, maybe I shouldn’t call that failure. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether failure is sometimes the will of God for a Christian walking with Him. Did Jesus ever fail? There are a few verses that sound like God is interested in giving us success when we are doing things His way. (Proverbs 3:5-6 for example.)

Questions: Is it sometimes God’s will for us to fail? Did Jesus ever fail? What should “failure” mean in each case?

The supernatural realm

It’s been a weird semester for me in prayer. I seem to be unusually sensitive (for me) to the possibility of demonic activity around me. At times I’ve been led to pray very specifically against the demonic, and those experiences have led to big spiritual victories for me.

My experience is running a little bit ahead of my theology in this. I’ve been praying for things that I’m sure I don’t really understand. I imagine that things work in certain ways in the supernatural realm, and I have felt led to pray on that basis, while not being sure I completely believe what I am picturing.

Questions: How real is demonic activity, and how important is it that we think in those terms? What is spiritual warfare, really?


Speaking of which, one of the things I am increasingly struck by is the way God communicates to us within the framework of the way we interpret reality. In an important sense, it doesn’t matter whether I see things as they are or not. God doesn’t let my faulty worldview get in the way of His speaking to me.

One Christian sees demons everywhere. Another eschews mysticism and interprets everything in terms of what is objective, measurable, and verifiable. Still another thinks in terms of the pragmatic. What matters is what works. God will speak to all three, on their own terms, as long as they are open to the Holy Spirit’s voice in their lives.

I’m learning to say, “This is how I think reality works” and then expect God to speak to me within that framework. When God does show me something, I can take it seriously without having to commit to my own framework. I can be sure that God showed me what I needed to know given what I was able to accept without thinking I have it entirely correct.

Questions: Does this idea not work for any reason?

Confronting false doctrine

A few weeks ago I befriended someone on facebook who routinely posts provocative and aggressive attacks on false teachers. I expected I would disagree with what he said fairly frequently and with how he said it even more frequently. Surprisingly, I usually enjoy reading his comments. Part of me cheers when he puts a foolish viewpoint in its place.

For years, I’ve known that I don’t do confrontation well. Although I respect some of those who confront false teachers, I know that I am no good at it. I’ve wondered if I would need to learn to refute false doctrine more than I do.

At the same time, I really disagree with certain self-appointed doctrinal guardians. There are some Christian writers who delight in finding fault with everyone whose approach to the faith differs from theirs in the slightest particular. They spend all their time tearing down their brothers and sisters in the faith, and building themselves up in spiritual pride for being one of the few who hold pure doctrine. I believe that in doing so they are violating James 3 and will one day be judged for it.

So I’m fascinated to see my reaction to my facebook friend. His posts make me very tense. They’ve also got me thinking about the way that refuting false doctrine should look when someone does it from the right motives and with the right attitude. I think this is something I’ll have to learn more about.

Questions: What is the heart of a person called to refute false doctrine? What are the wrong ways to do it and the right ways to do it? What does God want me to have in my own life in this regard?


I’m very busy this semester, and I’m getting more and more emotionally, spiritually, and (especially) physically tired. At the same time, I’ve been studying the Sabbath for Sunday school, and trying to learn how to be at rest in the Lord in my daily walk with Him.

Questions: How do we find a rich and deep restfulness in Christ?

Two questions for Calvinists

As those of you who know me realize, I really enjoy working through the theology of Calvinism / Arminianism, although I don’t like the belligerence that characterizes both sides of the discussion at times.

I just posted this on facebook to a Calvinist friend:

“There are two questions I’ve not heard satisfactory Calvinist responses to (most don’t even understand the question). I’d love to hear your take.

1. The most natural interpretation of Calvinism, to my mind, is basically “Faith is a work. No work of ours can save us. Therefore faith is a work of God alone.” But Romans 4:1-6, under the most natural interpretation, implies that faith is *not* a work. Do you agree?

2. Most Calvinists believe that God alone elects who will *get* saved, but seem to lapse back into something Arminian-like when it comes to *sanctification*. If I were Calvinist, I would insist that we have no more choice in how well we follow Christ after salvation than we had in getting saved before. Every one of the common Calvinist arguments applies as strongly to sanctification as to justification. Even Paul says “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, *yet not I, but the grace of God with me*.” [1 Corinthians 15:10].

So some Christians are chosen to follow Christ more completely in this life than others.

What do you think?”

To my readers, too: what do *you* think?

God and fictional worlds

The hopelessness of fictional atheism

Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.

Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.

One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.

In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.

In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.

Or so it seemed to me up until recently.

The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.

God exists in all possible worlds

Time for a quick detour.

First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.

As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.

If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.

Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.

In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.

So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!

Is this for real?

Well, sort of.

First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.

Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.

Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.

Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)

In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.

In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.

With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.

That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10