Friday, July 18, 2014

DO ATHEISTS EXIST?

I enjoy reading of the latest scientific discoveries, though I am amused at how often great, thorough studies are made, only to arrive at conclusions that many people already know or at least suspect:  sunshine is addictive; broccoli is good for you; domestic cats kill small animals, etc.  I am especially amused when scientific discoveries arrive at biblical conclusions or at least come close.

So I was intrigued when I came across an article in The Week magazine (7/18/14, page 10) entitled, "Are humans hardwired for faith?"  This article referred me to a longer article published in Science 2.0 by Nuri Vittachi with the even more intriguing title, "Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that's not a joke".

I have long suspected that what this title asserted was actually so, even though there have been many who would disagree.

This article begins by stating, "While militant atheists like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn't exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist." And it goes on to tell us, "Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged."

While Vittachi concedes that "this idea may seem outlandish," he explains that what we believe is not something we decide on our own, but lies somewhere in our "much deeper levels of consciousness."  He asserts that scientists claim "we are born believers ... pattern seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting."

Vittachi continues by presenting evidence involving "invisible friends" - some person or persons with whom we all hold internal conversations -  whether these are divine beings, spouses, near relatives or whatever.

He relates how in social science studies, even those who claim to be atheist or agnostic, claim belief in some higher power.  Though he comes up with some attempts at evolutionary explanations we are still left with huge percentages of humankind who have some sense of purpose in the universe - even those who claim no religious affiliation.  He speaks of "the notion" of "an invisible moralistic presence" which motivates "religious folk."

One interesting argument he gives is that from literature.  There seems to be a "manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives - books, movies and games."  We're told that "in almost all fictional worlds, God exists" - no matter what the "beliefs" of the authors.  "In children's stories ... the good guys win, the bad guys lose."  The same goes for most adult stories.

It would appear then that rather than to seek an explanation for belief in God as many professing atheists demand, we need to answer the question "where does atheism fit in?"

The article continues with much the same argument with similar data and concludes "...it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls.  And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today's atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.
          We might all be a little more spiritual than we think."

As I implied earlier, these conclusions come close to, and even verify the biblical assertion that everyone is religious in some way or another, or at least has religious predispositions.

Qoheleth, the author of the biblical book whose title is usually given as Ecclesiastes, is probably the one biblical writer whom we'd be tempted to label as cynical (he's not).  He writes from the perspective of one who lives "under the sun" and seems to be searching for meaning in life.  He feels that God has laid this "task" on him.  Qoheleth is not setting about this task on the basis of some written or spoken command, but apparently because of an inner subjective urge.

"It is an evil task which God has given to the sons of men to be tasked with" (1:13).

"He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also He has placed eternity in their heart, without which man will not find out the work which God has worked from beginning until end" (3:11).

Qoheleth doesn't claim that he attained a knowledge of God and His ways from divine revelation.  He rather tells his readers of what he has "seen," as well as this inner urge and desire "placed in (his) heart."  And he is not alone.  He claims that God has laid this "task" on "the sons of men."  This appears to be a claim that the whole human race has this inner Godward urge placed upon them.

If we fast forward about a thousand years we find the Apostle Paul making similar assertions.  He tells the readers of his letter to the Romans.

"... that which can be known of God is evident among them (i.e. humankind), for God made it evident to them" (Romans 1:19).

Though Paul was primarily speaking of the evidence for God in nature ("the things He has made" - verse 20), the word translated "among" (Greek - en) could also be translated "within" and may imply the conscience.  He is certainly speaking of what Vittachi would refer to as an inner sense of "cosmic justice," (or even "karma"?) in his following argument:

"For whenever gentiles (pagans, non-Jews), those who don't have the Law, by nature do the things of the Law, these who don't have the Law are a law to themselves, such ones as give evidence of the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying together and their reasonings alternately accusing or excusing them" (2:14, 15).

As Paul presents it here, the conscience is not merely a moral sense, a sense of right and wrong, but a sense of moral responsibility in the sight of a divine being.  And Paul seems to assume this sense to be true of all human beings.

The Bible, which asserts the existence of God from the first verse (the third word in Hebrew), nowhere assumes the existence of atheists as we would define them, although it mentions those who deny God's existence by their behavior.

"The fool says in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; also see 10:4).

This is not, however, an intellectual denial of God's existence, but a moral denial.  It is an indictment of those who behave as though they think God has no moral authority over them.  They are "fools" not because of their intellectual denial, but because of their behavior.

So what should we conclude?  Perhaps we should go back to what Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher said in his Pensees:  " ... there was once in man a true happiness ... there now remain(s) to him only the mark and empty trace, ... the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself."

All have some knowledge of God.  But as Paul says, it is our responsibility to recognize Him - to "glorify Him and give thanks" (Romans 1:21).  Sad to say we don't do this.

Also see:  WHAT HAPPENED?
                 MAYBE WE'RE ALL FUNDAMENTALISTS

                 
 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WHY SHOULD I PRAY?

Uni and I recently returned from a week's road trip of over 1,500 miles.  I had been called on to preach at Grace Chapel in El Paso, Texas.  That's a long ways from Edmond, Oklahoma, so we decided to stop and visit friends along the way and just enjoy the trip.  But still, that involved somewhere around 24 hours alone together in the car.

I suppose to many people - even happily married people - this sounds like it would be a tremendous bore.  But riding side-by-side is to us a great way to carry on a conversation.  Though there are large blocks of time spent in silence or listening to music and short naps (for me when I'm not driving) we probably spend most of our time talking.  This is a tradition that goes back over 60 years to when we were high school kids, dating.

What do we talk about?  Anything and everything that comes to mind.  Much of what we say has been said before, but there's usually something new that comes up:  an old memory, a shared experience, an insight into a problem.  We never run out of things to talk about.

We didn't spend much time online while we were gone, so upon returning home we needed to check out e-mails, facebook and a few blogs.  On my friend Canadian Atheist's blog I found a new post with the rather uncreative title "Prayer Shows a Lack of Confidence in God". Though I confess that I often ignore or just skim many of my friend's posts, this one got my interest.  It was brief and spoke of a subject about which I'm concerned and about which I had assumed he would be unconcerned.

The thesis of the post is pretty well summed up in its title and in the first few sentences.  "Supposedly, God is all-powerful, can do anything, His will is always done and He has a master plan.  That's all fine and good. So why bother praying or worshiping such a being, even if you do believe it exists?"

At first I was amused by this bit of hubris and was tempted to dash off a few sarcastic comments, but restrained myself.  After a more careful reading along with the comments, I was actually saddened.  Saddened because someone who claims that he doesn't believe in God should be so dogmatic about how believers should behave (even though I recognize that the article was an attempt at satire).  The comments were varied, ranging from amens from the choir to attempts to explain from a believer's viewpoint.

Actually the question my friend attempts to address is an old one which thinkers - theologians and philosophers - have spilled much sweat and ink wrestling with for millennia, though none have given as simplistic a solution as my friend.  It's expressed in some form or other in the Psalms and the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.  Even Paul Simon tells us that "God only knows, God makes His plan, the information's unavailable to the mortal man."
 
If God is sovereign, if everything is in some way part of His master plan, why pray?  Why not "sit back, relax and enjoy the extra time spent not praying doing something productive, such as spending it with your family or helping to make the world around you a better place."

I've attempted to deal with this question before.  I've been asked it many times and have even asked it myself more than once.  One of my attempts at answering it can be found on my post HOW SHOULD I PRAY?  I'll not go over those thoughts again here, but here are some further thoughts.

As I related earlier, Uni and I have been conversing for over 60 years.  We know the intimate details of each others' lives, thoughts and memories, many of which we've shared.  We don't usually converse to inform or persuade.  We converse because we love each other, because we're the best of friends and that's what friends do.  As we converse our minds become more and more in tune.

Isn't that also why we carry on conversations with God?  To become more and more intimate and to bring our minds in tune with His.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SARAH OBEYED ABRAHAM, CALLING HIM LORD

In my previous post I spoke of the obligation that the Apostle Peter laid on us husbands - to treat our wives as we would "a weaker vessel" (1 Peter 3:7).  I mentioned that this phrase has caused much debate by members of both sexes.  What I didn't mention was that the preceding passage - the one that speaks of wives' obligations - has also been a cause of controversy.
 
The whole passage goes like this:
          "Likewise wives submitting to your own husbands, that if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word, through the conduct of their wives, as they observe your pure conduct in fear  Don't just make yourselves beautiful outwardly - doing your hair, wearing gold jewelry or pretty clothes.  But let your beauty be the hidden person of the heart, in the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:1-4).
          "For this is the way the holy women who hoped in God in past times used to make themselves beautiful - by submitting to their own husbands - as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children you've become, by doing good and not getting scared by any fright" (3:5, 6).
 
Most of this exhortation is pretty straightforward and fits in with Peter's theme.  His readers are addressed as "strangers and pilgrims."  All through this little letter they are exhorted to, "Keep your conduct beautiful among the pagans" (2:12).  This involves an attitude of submission in all human relationships  In the present context - wives to husbands.
 
But it's verse 6 that causes us problems - that reference to Sarah and Abraham:  She "obeyed" him, "calling him lord."  While many have problems with submission, it is clearly a concept used throughout the New Testament.  But obey, call him lord?  Nowhere else in the New Testament are women told to do this.
 
We don't like that word.  To submit is hard enough - to place oneself under the authority of another.  That's also an instruction for all of us - male and female (Ephesians 5:21).  But "obey"?  Children are told to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1).  Slaves are told to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5).  There are, of course, many other situations where obedience is necessary.  But isn't the husband/wife relationship egalitarian?
 
And she called him lord?
 
Interestingly, many women still promise to "love, honor and obey" in  traditional wedding vows.  Kate Middleton did so in her vows to Prince Andrew.  I believe that Uni did when she said her vows to me (of course that was a loong time ago).
 
In fact, this verse has caused a bit of laughter in our marriage.  Sometimes when we have a dispute and Uni sees that I am intransigent, she'll say (sarcastically I assume), "Yes, My Lord!" or refer to herself as "your obedient servant."  Usually this helps us both to cool down.  It seems we don't really take this passage very seriously.
 
So - what do we do with this passage?  How should we understand it and how should we apply it?  Well, the first thing we should notice is that Peter is not giving this as a command or even as advice.  He is holding Sarah and Abraham as illustrations of the wife's submission.

I believe it would be a good idea to go back to the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis.  Where do we find Sarah "obeying" Abraham?  While I can't find the word "obey" in the Genesis story, we do find Sarah obeying Abraham in his bizarre scheme to lie to Pharaoh (Genesis 12:1-13) and to Abimelech the Philistine king (20:1, 2).  Not exactly exemplary behavior!  We also read where Abraham obeyed Sarah (he "listened to the voice of Sarah") when she urged him to have sex with the maid!  (By the way, the same words are used of Adam in 3:17).

But there's only one place where Sarah calls Abraham "lord":
          "And He (the LORD) said, 'I will surely return to you at this time next year, and see - Sarah your wife will have a son."  And Sarah heard this at the tent entrance behind him.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in days, Sarah had ceased the way of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am old, will I have my pleasure?  [This probably refers to becoming a mother, although the Good News Bible paraphrases it, "Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?"]  And my lord is old too!"  (Genesis 18:10-12)
          "And the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh saying shall I really bear a child when I'm so old?  Is anything too marvelous for the LORD?  I will return to you at this time next year and Sarah will have a son!''  (18:13, 14).
          "Sarah denied saying, 'I did not laugh!' because she was afraid.   But He said, 'No!  You did too laugh!'"  (18:15)  

This is not exactly a picture of the sweet submissive wife that a casual reading of Peter's letter might seem to imply.  In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis is a story of a man and a woman in a stormy relationship as many of the marriage stories in the Bible are.  These are real people, with real personalities that frequently had  real conflicts.

So why on earth would the Apostle Peter use Sarah as an example?  Surely the author of a segment of inspired Scripture must have known that the references he gave would have brought a smirk to the faces of any biblically literate readers.

Is it possible that Peter saw the irony here?  I believe he was doing just that.  Peter was a married man (the first Pope?!!).  And if the traditional dating of this letter at about 63 A.D. is correct, then he had been married for over 30 years.  In the Gospels (ca. 30 A.D.) we find that he had a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30).  Paul mentions that Peter (Cephas) had a wife who accompanied him on his missionary travels (1 Corinthians 9:5; 56 A.D.).  So Peter would undoubtedly have known what married life was like.  Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Peter had chuckled over the Abraham and Sarah stories and related them to their own stories as Uni and I do ours.  And perhaps he mentioned Sarah's "obedience" to bring a little comic relief to his readers.  Sometimes we just take ourselves too seriously.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

THE WEAKER VESSEL


Uni and I like to watch movies at home.  At times we have difficulty determining which to watch out of the nearly infinite selection available.  Lately we've been watching some movies of the type often labeled "chick flicks" - those with some sort of romantic interest - no shoot-em-ups, no car chases, but lots of sad faces, tears, kisses and occasional bedroom scenes.
What got me to thinking as I watched the last three was the common depiction of the female lead as having some sort of weakness or need that the male character in some way attempted to meet.

The Notebook - She is an elderly woman who suffers from dementia - loss of memory - which her husband tenderly attempts to recover by reading the story of their romance from her notebook/diary.

Labor Day - She is a single mother, living with her preteen son.  Her husband has left her for another woman because of her depression over her inability to have more children and she feels she can never love again.  But she finds love from an escaped convict who chooses to hide out in her home.

Seven Pounds - She is dying from congenital heart failure, when the male character, trying to find personal atonement for his past, literally gives her his heart.

I'm not trying to make light of these movies.  I cried along with Uni through the pathos, perhaps even more than she.  But I was struck by the common theme.

My first thoughts were of how old-fashioned and outdated these stories seemed to be.  We live in an age of feminine empowerment.  In our lifetime we've seen women's roles change dramatically - women taking on activities that were not long ago thought of as only the province of men.  The women in these movies seemed weak by "modern" standards.  (Of course, the men had their weaknesses too.)

But a passage from the New Testament kept coming to mind.  "You husbands likewise, living together with them in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, granting your wives honor, as fellow heirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).

This verse is packed, but it is the phrase "weaker vessel" that stands out to me, especially after watching these three movies.  And it is this phrase that has caused much debate in various Bible studies that I have led or been involved in.  There are those men who take this as somehow granting them license to dominate.  There are those women who question the description of them as "weaker".  Arguments from traditional male dominance; arguments concerning relative body strength, upper and lower body strength, child-bearing - I've heard them all.  But is this what it's all about - physical comparison between the sexes?

A little context might help:  Peter is addressing believers who are scattered in a hostile environment.  He addresses his readers as "strangers and pilgrims."  They appear to be recent converts from paganism with all its vices.  They have to live among people who are suspicious of their behavior.

Peter exhorts them to live lives of exemplary behavior as a witness of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  One of his recurring instructions is to "submit" in their human relationships - "to every human institution" (2:13); "slaves to masters" (2:18); "to their leaders" (5:5); and most importantly in our text, "wives to husbands," especially if the husbands are unbelievers (3:1).

So when Peter urges husbands to do "likewise," he is urging that same submissive spirit on them as on their wives.  It is to be a characteristic of every follower of Jesus.

This passage is not making a comparison between the relative strength and weakness of men and women.  It is an exhortation addressed to men - husbands - about how they are to relate to their wives.  The burden is on us!

Because this verse has been misinterpreted and misapplied in so many ways, I feel it's necessary to say a little about what it does not say.  It doesn't say that the wife is the weaker vessel.  Nor does it say that she is the husband's vessel.

The husband and wife are two "vessels" in the household of God.  This is an analogy that is used elsewhere in Scripture.  They are called "fellow heirs" - two members of equal importance to God.  Because the society of Peter's day was relatively patriarchal - male dominated, there was a need for stressing this equality of the wife and the husband.

And then note this:  he is to live together with her and grant her honor (or value) as with a weaker vessel.  That "as" is important.  It speaks not of the physical condition she is in but of how she is to be treated.

It means that I am to regard my wife as something special.  I am to handle her with care.  This can mean many things and can be carried out in many ways, but it always means that I owe her special treatment.  I must protect her from danger.  I must take note of her actual weaknesses.  I must listen.

I must handle her like fine China!

At this point it would be easy for me to make a list of the various things that I do or have done in this regard and tell every husband reading this that these are his oughts.  But that would end up in frustrating legalism.  My advice:  get to know her.  If you think you already know her well enough, you're doing better than I am after over 60 years with Uni` (57 years of marriage).

And be gentle; don't be afraid of embarrassing her or yourself.  She'll let you know what she likes and what her needs are.

This past Friday Uni and I attended a wedding of a young couple.  Though most of the ceremony was traditional, there was one surprise, one thing we had not seen before.

The groom got down on his knees, carefully removed his bride's shoes and washed her feet!