The Comprehension Gulf

The Comprehension Gulf is the argument that God, if He exists, is infinite, and man, being finite, cannot possibly recognize or know Him. 1

This argument is easily dismissed but let’s give the atheists and agnostics a chance to explain.

The atheist Carl Van Doren (1885-1950) wrote:

There is no trustworthy evidence as to a god’s absolute existence. . . . Nor does the thing called revelation, as I see it, carry the proof further. . . . If belief in a god has to proceed from the assumption that he exists, belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he communicates his will to certain men. But both are mere assumptions. Neither is, in the present state of knowledge, at all capable of proof. Suppose a god did exist, and suppose he did communicate his will to any of his creatures. What man among them could comprehend that language? What man could take that dictation? 2

Atheist Geoffrey Berg writes:

I suppose some people might like to counter this objection by insisting that it is an essential characteristic of a monotheistic God that he can be known by us and can communicate with us. However I think, that given it is impossible for the mortal to be sure of the immortal and for the finite to be sure of the infinite, that would be asking for the impossible. Yet it is generally not supposed to be one of God’s characteristics that he accomplishes what is logically impossible. 3

Both of these writers are willing to suspend their disbelief for a little while and imagine that if God existed He would be infinite or at least be as God should be in order to qualify as God. If He existed, then He would do so as the God He would have to be in order to be God. He would be “that than which no greater thing can be thought (Anselm).”4 Or as William of Ockham put it, “that than which nothing is more noble and more perfect.”5 But, according to the Comprehension Gulf argument, man, because he is finite, would never be able to discover, recognize, or know this infinite God.

Doren and Berg prove that they are capable of imagining what God would be like if He existed. But for some reason they have trouble going one step further in their imaginations, allowing for this infinite God to be so perfect and knowledgeable that He is capable of devising a way to speak to and communicate with finite man. The question becomes, “Could an infinite, all powerful, all knowing God find a way to reveal Himself to humanity if He wanted to?” If you say “No!” then you have not imagined God big enough. In fact, if I can imagine it, He is greater still! So, if one can imagine God big enough, he should also be able to imagine a God who could cross the gulf and communicate effectively to His creation.

Let’s go a little further. If an infinite God did span the gulf and communicate to His creation, how might He do that? Through His audible voice? By making an appearance? Perhaps He would send an emissary. Maybe He would come in a disguise so as not to scare us off before we could understand the revelation. Perhaps once He established communication with someone He would ask that person to share what was revealed with others by speaking to them or even writing it down. Hmm…imagine that?!

Berg makes a curious statement (seen above) when he writes: “Yet it is generally not supposed to be one of God’s characteristics that he accomplishes what is logically impossible.”6 Of course such a characterization of God is amazingly opposite to the truth. Doing the impossible is what God specializes in! Why? Because He is God! Because He is the only One who can and because it is one of His ways of bridging the gap between finite mankind and Himself. The Apostle Paul said it well when he described God as “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17).”

When she was just a little girl (4 or 5), my daughter Katie would imagine that she was the proprietor of a candy store. Of course, then, I would be one of her customers. I remember the first time we played that game. I ordered a certain candy and she said, “Sorry, we don’t have that kind of candy.” “Hold on a minute, ” I would say, “This is an imaginary candy store, why can’t you imagine the kind of candy I want?” She wouldn’t budge! She simply refused to imagine the kind of candy I wanted!

If one wants to disqualify the idea of the existence of God through various other arguments, OK. We can talk about those ideas as well. But one should not make the mistake of disqualifying God simply because his or her imagination is not big enough. Paul knew this:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV).

NOTES 

1 Geoffrey Berg, The Six Ways Of Atheism, (Self-published: 2009), 50.

2 Carl Van Doren, “Why I Am an Unbeliever,” published in, The Portable Atheist, Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2007), 139-140.

3 Berg, 56.

4 Alister McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, Third Edition (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 12.

5 Ibid., 23.

6 Berg, The Six Ways of Atheism, 56.

School Districts Alter Pledge of Allegiance – Christian News Blog

It is amazing how far we will go just to appease a small fraction of the population! In this case, a school doesn’t want to offend atheists so they doctor the Pledge of Allegiance. How many atheists are in this school? One? Two? Ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God and yet we would ask them to be quiet about it so that we do not disturb the 7% who don’t and the 1% who have no opinion! Honestly, how many more ways will we find to reject God? How long will God continue to hold back judgement from a nation that has so eloquently denied Him?

Interestingly, a Lifeway poll says it found that 25% of Americans feel that forcing kids to say “under God” violates their rights. That’s just the thing: no one is forced to say “under God.” The real issue is that they feel they have a right not to hear the word God! There are a lot of things I would like not to hear but there is a matter of free speech (or there was back when we were a nation under God!).

You can’t make this stuff up! (Well, you could, but in America you don’t have to!)

School Districts Alter Pledge of Allegiance – Christian News Blog.

Your thoughts on this Tozer Quote . . .

I recently discovered this quote from Tozer that I think is priceless. What do you think he is saying?

A. W. Tozer
A. W. Tozer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“It will cost something to walk slow in the parade of the ages, while excited men of time rush about confusing motion with progress. But it will pay in the long run and the true Christian is not much interested in anything short of that.”

Tozer’s Prayer for The Knowledge of the Holy

A. W. Tozer
A. W. Tozer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Scott Fowler

In one of his sermons titled, “The God of All Creation,” which I assume was given near the end of his ministry but before he published The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer shares his desire to leave behind a legacy of thinking loftily about God:

“I want you to pray about something for me will you do this? I don’t often introduce personal matters but I want you to pray about something. I wish you’d pray that God would help me and let me live long enough to write a book on the attributes of God devotionally considered. I have that in my mind and I want to do it . . . . I’d like to do this; I’d like to leave to this generation an elevated and large conception of the great God Almighty in His three persons. I’d like to die and let the world say not “Wasn’t Tozer smart! Wasn’t he eloquent! Wasn’t he witty!” but to have them say, “We praise the O, God! We acknowledge thee to be the Lord! . . . . It’s this that I want to do. I want to leave behind me a flavor of God. . . .”

We would do well in this hour of heresy and compromise to listen to men of the past like Tozer who drank deeply of the Spirit of God and whom God used to articulate a vision of His greatness, and who also encouraged the Church to elevate its view of God.

Four Qualms with Alan Chambers’ Apology from the Exodus International Platform

If you have not heard about Exodus International and the recent apology by its president, Alan Chambers, you can read his apology here. Just Google it and you will get all the background you need. 

By Scott Fowler

The recent apology by Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, is quite the hot topic this week. There may be any number of issues we could discuss, but he said four things in his apology that I would like to address in this article.

Item One:

Today it is as if I’ve just woken up to a greater sense of how painful it is to be a sinner in the hands of an angry church.

This is a loaded statement that leads me asking, Which church? In what way is the Bible-believing, evangelical church angry with Exodus International? I can’t say that I am aware of the feedback Exodus International has gotten over the years. Apparently there have been gross indiscretions in its operations at times. If this is what Chambers means, OK. But I kind of think he must be trying to say that somehow the church is angry at his stance towards homosexuality, same-sex marriage, reparative processes, etc. If this is what he means, then he is talking about a certain part of the “church,” an inclusive part that is no way to be characterized by what used to be known as evangelicalism. So my complaint here is that it seems as though he is reflecting a change in the believing Church’s stance on homosexuality and that is not the case. My words here are not in defense of any abusive behavior towards the LGBT community which no right-headed genuine believer would advocate anyway.

Item Two:

But if the Church is a body, with many members being connected to the whole, then I believe that what one of us does right we all do right,and what one of us does wrong we all do wrong. 

This is nice fireside, “kum bah yah” language, but it doesn’t wash. First of all, there are too many instances where this statement on its face is disproved over and over and over. Second, I sort of resent Chamber’s appointing himself to speak for the church and to drag the church into what he is saying. I am tired of people beating up on the church. How easy it is to cherry pick all the things that the church has done wrong over the years and blame everyone for it. How easy to dismiss righteous claims because some individual skewed off-center and did something shameful. So, on one hand Chambers is facing “an angry church” and on the other he is saying the church did wrong with him. Well, the jury is still out on the reasons for Chambers’ apology, but in the mean time he isn’t speaking for the believing Church.

Item Three:

 And then there is the trauma that I have caused. There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away. Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there.

The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I feel free simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does.

I am truly not trying to be unkind or even judgmental, but this sounds like Chambers is “coming out.” It also sounds like he is trying to say that he was “born this way.” He also seems to be suggesting that God accepts homosexuality, or at least its desires, as normal and OK. And it all seems to be firmly based in Chambers’ subjective experience and perspective. Finally, his message would seem to be, “Don’t be ashamed of your homosexual desires. They are normal and God accepts them.” Again, Chambers does not speak for the believing Church if indeed this is what he is saying.

Item Four:

You have never been my enemy. I am very sorry that I have been yours. I hope the changes in my own life, as well as the ones we announce tonight regarding Exodus International, will bring resolution, and show that I am serious in both my regret and my offer of friendship. I pledge that future endeavors will be focused on peace and common good. Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.

I wonder what the changes are going to be in Chambers’ own life? I also want to know what kind of “resolution” Chambers is hoping to bring about? Who has shown displeasure to Chambers with such ferocity that he has arrived at this moment of what many will call capitulation? But here is the part I am most concerned about with this quote. His future focus on “peace,” “common good,” and “human flourishing.” My problem is not that those things aren’t good, but they can be disastrous when the foundation they are built on is compromise or fear of man.

Conclusion

I must reiterate that I am no expert on Exodus International, nor do I have any insight into the spiritual or theological veracity of Alan Chambers. It is not my desire to castigate him or his walk with God. But even though I have stated here that he is not an official spokesman for the believing church, when a leader like Chambers speaks out the culture invariably groups the church in with his words.

The Tickle Chronicles

By Scott Fowler

Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and C...
Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, 3/3/11 (Photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

So, how is it that I have become focused on Phyllis Tickle and, more specifically, her theology and approach to Scripture? Her claim to fame is that she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her pedigree is long and you can read more about her on her website. But, more importantly for our interests, she is one of the very public representatives of emergence Christianity and it is in this capacity that she has made several statements that are of concern to me and, in my estimation, to the believing Church.

It was because of my concerns, and because I was beginning to write about her and reference her in my classes, that I decided to contact her through email, asking several pointed questions, to which she graciously and generously responded.

This article will chronicle my early exposure to Tickle’s theology, begin to share her answers to my questions, and thus begin a series of articles reflecting on Tickle, her theology (and more particularly her hermeneutical approach to Scripture), and emergence Christianity. She is quite prolific, having written many books and given many interviews, etc., and while I will not be able to master all of the material pertinent to my concerns, I believe we can get a genuine idea of where she stands and why her views might be of concern to those of us who have defined evangelical Christianity in a different way than she has.

The Gabe Lyons Interview

I had heard about Phyllis Tickle a few years ago but only in passing. Then, a colleague showed me a video of her being interviewed by Gabe Lyons. It didn’t take me long to realize that Tickle was saying things that concerned me and that should be of concern to the believing Church. Lyons’ first question went like this:

Lyons: “Recently in the news we hear this discussion about Christian America somehow coming to an end. There’s been a lot of news articles even written about it called ‘The end of Christian America.’ What would be your perspective on even what this idea of Christian America really even is?”

Tickle: “Well, I think my perspective to some extent is, ‘How quickly can we hold the services?’”1

Tickle immediately admitted that her response was “perhaps not the right answer and maybe a smart one” as in smart aleck I think. It would seem she has quite a sense of humor. Still, her quip signaled to me that some kind of “deconstructionist” approach to the church was present and that it warranted further investigation.

In this interview, Tickle sounds very evangelical. In  The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism2 I claimed that she did not want to be called evangelical. I was apparently wrong about that. In my correspondence with her, I pointed out that I had been writing about her and invited her to read it and correct what she thought was wrong. She responded by saying,

“The web sites you sent me were, and are, interesting. Yours made me chuckle right off the bat when you defined me as not an evangelical. One of the things I routinely say to audiences by way of defining who and what I am before they commence listening to what I have to say, is that I am an evangelical Episcopalian. There really is such a thing, and I really am one.”3

While my statement was incorrect on its face, I was writing less from a perspective of a reporter and more from a deductive standpoint. If I were to reword my statement it might go something like this:

“Based on what I am hearing from Phyllis Tickle through her writings, her sermons, and her video interviews, she is obviously abandoning the title evangelical as well, if she ever thought of herself as one.”

To borrow a phrase coined by Tickle herself, I think my sentiments are actually true if not factually true. If I am allowed further opportunity to question Ms. Tickle, I would like to ask her to define evangelical. Perhaps we will be able to answer that question fairly accurately ourselves before we’re done here.

Some further statements in the interview added to my concerns. Asked about how the church should go about being effective in a post-Christendom American context, she said:

“Now we don’t have to say, ‘Please come to church with me.’ Yuck! You know, uh, we can say, ‘Let’s go have a beer, or let’s go have Starbucks, or let’s do something, and let’s talk and let me tell you [about God].’”4

For Tickle, this is a communal, more relational, more humble approach. She labeled it “missional,” “pub theology,” and “water cooler theology.” She also characterized this new way of doing church by saying, “Unscrew the pews, open the space, and let’s dance.”5

It’s not that I don’t see value in much of what Tickle said, and you have to remember, at this point I was unaware of her stance on Gay Christianity, or her unique hermeneutical approach to Scripture. I was just hearing someone I did not know speak in deconstructive terms about the Church and the pastor in me heard an alarm go off.

Part of my concern here is that I hear in her words strains of something that George Barna wrote years ago in his book Revolution. Though the book is replete with problems and what I consider to be troubling statements, three stand out from the rest and paint a picture of disdain for the local church.

Barna Statement #1

 “Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.”6

Barna Statement #2

 “But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.”7

Barna Statement #3

 “Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”8

Now, Phyllis Tickle is not George Barna and, as far as I know, Barna does not figure into emergence Christianity in any official way. But, in general, I am leery of the “abandon the local church” model, which I did detect, wrong or right, in Tickle.

The Andrew Marin Interview

Next was an interview with Andrew Marin, the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Here, we get an idea of Tickle’s hermeneutic. Two things stand out: her support of Gay Christianity and her view of absolute Sola Scriptura: Scripture only and only Scripture.

Andrew Marin: “As a representative of the church, capital ‘C’ church here, what would you like to say to the broader church about the Gay or Lesbian community?”

Tickle: I would like to say first of all . . . yes I am Episcopalian . . .but my assignment  . . . is the Holy Trinity Community Church, United Church of Christ Community Church, which is an all-inclusive, Bi, Gay, Trans, Lesbian church, and about 80% of our members are in that category and about 20% are not. So, I come with some personal experience and obviously, I’ve been a member of that communion for ten years now, and serve them as a Lector, Reader, and also as a lay Eucharistic minister. So, I’m not sure I can be called a representative of the Church capital ‘C’ without some prejudice . . . to it. But, the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. [As concerns sexuality?] And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. But you can look right from the 1850’s you can see a progression of change. In the 1850’s Churches split over the slavery question and it was true, honest, it was religious difference, it was Scriptural differences of opinion. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Go own people,’ but it certainly recognizes slavery as a possibility and it even provides for it and sort of condones it if you will. We got over that cause it didn’t make sense. We got over feminism or we got over the need for equality of the genders. And again the Bible’s pretty clear, Paul is certainly clear about the role of the genders, and it didn’t work in our society. So, this is the last . . . and so there’s a sort of progression if you will of sociological shifts over the last hundred and fifty years, hundred and sixty years, and this is the last, I tell audiences, it’s the last puck in a deadly game, the last playing piece, if you will, in a deadly game, and if anybody on either side of the issue fails to understand what really is the issue and the issue really is absolute sola Scriptura, Scripture only and only Scripture. Did God put a period at the end of Revelation or did He put a comma? And once you understand that when we make this change, and we will make it, there’s no question, I mean it’s essentially a dead issue . . . . but the truth of it is we’re gonna get over this. We just have to understand that when we do, it’s the last, it is the last playing piece. It’s the last stance if you will for sola Scriptura . . . and you know if we’re bright we will recognize that divorce wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to the human race or to the human home but it was a necessary adjustment and we’ve paid a price for it but we probably would have paid a greater price if we’d not had it, I think the same thing is true here.”9

It still strikes me as odd to hear someone saying out loud what Tickle says in the Marin interview.

The Bart Gingerich Article

This article, written as a report of sorts on the national gathering of the proponents of emergence Christianity which happened earlier this year (Jan. 11-12 ) in Memphis, TN. The article reports Tickle as having “foretold a ‘coming age of the Spirit,’ in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth (outdated artifacts from the ages of the Father and the Son) would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.”

In the area of authority, Gingerich reported that Tickle said, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know [sic] have that answer yet . . . . Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity . . . . Emergents . . . believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.”

Then, we get a glimpse into Tickle’s hermeneutic when, according to Gingerich, Tickle “commended the group for avoiding the ‘arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding,’ labeled the Bible as ‘patriarchal’ (‘only a fool’ would think otherwise), condemned the concept of a closed canon of Scripture, and still supports homosexuality even though ‘the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there.’”

Finally, as pertains to the Doctrine of the Atonement, Gingerich reports:

“The noted speaker also contended, ‘We need to devise a new doctrine of the atonement.’ Informing the audience that there are at least six kinds of atonement theory, she excoriated the penal substitutionary view of redemption. This ‘bloody sacrifice’ approach is the evangelical staple, teaching that Christ took upon God’s wrath against Law-breaking sinners upon himself as a substitute, thus purchasing grace and mercy for believers. ‘It won’t play anymore,’ Tickle stated. She traced this view back to the broader satisfaction theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to her revision, after failing to stave off the First Crusade, Anselm decided to write his Cur Deos Homo to comfort soldiers doomed to die in the Holy Land. She audaciously analogized, ‘It was like the way some radical imams tell suicide bombers that, if they strap twenty grenades on and blow themselves up, they’ll get twenty virgins in paradise.’

Conclusion

These three sources launched me on an investigation of sorts, and ultimately led me to reach out to Ms. Tickle in an effort to hear from her directly on the issues raised in these sources.

In the next article, I will share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle and begin to share some of what she communicated back to me. After summarizing the sources for this article, I am even more interested to hear from Tickle her definition of evangelical.

NOTES

1 From a 2011 Gabe Lyon’s interview with Phyllis Tickle as seen on Right Now Ministries website, http://www.rightnow.org/Media/Series/2215#1.

2  https://ccithink.com/2013/04/08/the-sinking-ship-of-evangelicalism-part-i-the-problem/

3 Unpublished personal correspondence between myself and Ms. Tickle.

4 Lyons interview.

5 Ibid.

6 George Barna, Revolution: Worn Out on Church? Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers: 2005), 29.

7 ibid., 36.

8 ibid., 66.

9 Part I: Andrew Marin Interviews Phyllis Ticklehttp: //www.youtube.com/watch?v= SOQQPC_SsEs

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

Dallas Willard Passed Away This Week

Dallas Willard, best known for his book The Divine Conspiracy, passed away on Wednesday morning, he had pancreatic cancer.

To me he was best known as a profound thinker in the area of spiritual formation and discipleship. I have always said of him to others that he was writing books today that will be classics in the Church a hundred years from now. You should read his books. If you do, make sure you have a highlighter and a pen.

Below is a link to an article written by someone who knew him well.

Dallas Willard, a Man from Another Time Zone | Christianity Today.

Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 2

ethics
ethics (Photo credit: JosephGilbert.org)

By Scott Fowler

H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.

 In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.

Ethics, Christian Ethics, and an Ethics of Christ and Culture

Simply put, the study of ethics concerns itself with the human pursuit of “the good.”1 It deals with questions having to do with how people should behave and asks, “What is the good life for man?”2 The subject and study of Christ and culture is the study of ethics, though not simply Christian ethics, limited only to those who profess Christ, but rather an ethics that speaks of Christ intersecting with culture; a theory of ethics that envisions culture as Christ would order it.

Admittedly, some have expressed animosity towards the idea of Christian ethics for at least a couple of reasons. First, the many examples where atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity such as “[the] crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the Americas, religious wars, the Galileo affair, defences of slavery and patriarchy.”3 Second, because Christians are perceived as not caring about the natural world and the common interests of mankind. In fact, some would say “Jesus imperils culture.”4 An ethics of Christ and culture wants to decisively address the questions that arise in the human pursuit of “the good.” It wants to define what “the good life” is for humanity.

The “Enduring Problem”

Niebuhr referred to the problem of human culture as the “enduring problem.”5 And while the Church, as representatives of Christ, would like to lead the culture, there are several reasons according to Niebuhr why the culture is suspicious of an ethics of Christ and culture.

First, he reported that the culture perceives that “Christians are animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.”6

It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink . . . the unimportance of treasures on earth . . . the fear of those who can take away life [see Matthew 6; 10:28] . . . as well as his [Jesus’] rejection in life and death of temporal power [Matthew 4]” all point to Jesus as the source of His followers’ convictions . . . .It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophecies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage.

The second reason, according to Niebuhr, for cultural contempt towards an ethics of Christ and culture is the accusation that Jesus

“induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement. What would have happened to the Romans, asks Celsus in effect, if they had followed the command to trust in God alone? Would they not have been left like the Jews, without a patch of ground to call their own, and would they not have been hunted down as criminals, like the Christians?”7

This approach to life flies in the face of an ethics that relies on human effort.

The third reason given by Niebuhr is that “Christ and his church . . . are intolerant.”Niebuhr prophetically describes this accusation as “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” The problem in Rome was not that Christians worshiped

a new God in Jesus Christ, but that they claimed to possess an exclusive divine knowledge and would not bow to Caesar when it was required. Niebuhr wrote:

“The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world’s kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshiped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage [today read: the Church yielding to the state in our present milieu of separation between Church and state.]”

Niebuhr mentions other aspects of Christianity that are abhorrent to the culture: Christ’s view of forgiveness, the requirements found in the Sermon on the Mount, the exaltation of the lowly, and the “unavailability of Christ’s wisdom to the wise and prudent, its attainability by the simple and by babes.”

In the end, the problem is between the two authoritative poles of Christ and culture and that Christians appeal to and follow Christ’s authority and want others to as well. Indeed, Jesus imperils culture.

Notes

1 Dr. Stephen Long, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Popkin, Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).

3 Long, page 1.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) 4.

5 Ibid., page 1ff.

6 Ibid., Niebuhr quoting Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 5. The following quotes come from this same source: Niebuhr Chapter One The Enduring Problem.

7 Niebuhr is quoting Origen here: Contra Celsus, VIII, lxix (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, p 666).

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

In response to a response from crazyqueerclassicist:

By Scott Fowler

I am writing this article in response to one written by Chris Delmore who took exception to Roger Erdvig’s Boys will be boys . . . or will they? post of a couple weeks ago. By Chris’s own admission he intended to write an article that would be unexpected and annoying. It was unexpected (though not the ideas within, but the time taken to articulately respond to my challenge and Roger’s article), but it was not annoying.

It is not my intention to respond for Roger. Perhaps he will do that at a later date. But I do have some thoughts and questions for Chris.

Definitions

Chris immediately took exception to Roger’s dismissal of the transgender claims of children referred to in his article, demanding respect for their assertions. I would plead for understanding and patience on Chris’s part as far as we evangelical’s1 are concerned in even understanding where our language would be offensive in these issues. Your average Christian is unaware of the intricacies of transgenderism2 and all that it entails. But, I can say that we do not, and should not, say what we say in an effort to disrespect. But one must understand that evangelical Christians come at this issue with a different worldview; one that is less interested in making people comfortable in their choices or situations and more interested in addressing what to us seems like a tragic condition. It seems strange to simply accept that a little girl has begun to identify as a little boy and not try and find reasons for it. Why? Because our worldview says that God has not made people this way. So, since that is what we firmly believe, we look for solutions; for answers. The idea that gender is “by definition . . . a psychological concept” is a strange idea to us and one we cannot accept, and one that, in spite of the sources cited in Chris’s article, is one that probably has not been accepted by anyone for very long. In 1828 gender simply meant “a sex, male or female. . . . a difference in words to express distinction of sex.”3 The American Heritage Dictionary still retains this definition, though it opens the door for a distinction between “sex” and “gender” by defining gender as “sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture” as well. So, the idea that gender is a psychological concept and that it and sex are “entirely separate concepts” is not one that we accept, in spite of Stryker and Butler and the massive intellectual fire power Chris wheeled out in order to make this point. It is hard however to reconcile the idea that gender is a psychological concept and yet see it defended as something that cannot be changed and, by implication as something that is not chosen or at least engendered by one’s familial environment, etc.

Clashing Worldviews

As for using God as support for our arguments, it is simply inadequate to say that such reference points are meaningless for those that do not believe in “a single, omnipotent, creationist God.” I assume that Chris embraces a postmodern philosophy that does not allow for absolute truth (in contrast I love the simplicity of Aquinas who asserts, “The existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth.”), though in one place Chris expresses agreement with Roger about truth. And I am unaware of Chris’s religious beliefs. In any case, just because there are individuals who have decided that God does not exist, does not mean He doesn’t exist. And there is no clause that allows for each of us to choose our own universe or our own eschatological destinies based on preference (i.e., the idea that since I don’t believe in God I won’t have to answer to God). Either there is a God or there is not. Either it is the God of the Bible, the Christian God, or it is not. Either the tenets of Scripture (the Bible) are true or they are not. This is the issue.

Do we find certain situations in the world that we cannot explain? Yes. Are there actually people who, as far as they know, are gay or lesbian or identify as being of a gender opposite to what the transgender literature describes as their “assigned sex”? Yes. But human experience does not define the Bible. The Bible defines human experience. Any Christian who sincerely thinks that every person involved in the LGBT community is simply, consciously trying to rebel against God should do some deeper thinking and investigation (though there certainly are those in the LGBT community who seem to be doing just that). But just because there are good-hearted, kind, well-meaning, even god-fearing individuals out there in the wide world who are attracted to the same sex or who identify opposite to their “assigned sex,” that does not make it acceptable. It does not, in and of itself, mean that those realities should be normalized or canonized into the list of normal human experience. The question here is which standard of truth will we adhere to?

Bottom-up Subjectivity4

I found interesting the four explanations to Roger’s rhetorical, “How did we get here so fast?” particularly, number three: the idea that acceptance comes to the LGBT community because people do not want to hurt their loved ones who have come out as LGBT. Of course, it is laudable when people love their friends and families and don’t want to hurt them. Any other intention would not make sense. But from an evangelical Christian standpoint, our commitment to God and to truth trumps our sentimentalities and even our staunch devotion to our loved ones. In fact, changing the truth in order not to hurt someone’s feelings is like a doctor not revealing a potentially fatal disease to a patient because he or she does not want to hurt the patient’s feelings. When we stop valuing and pursuing truth, all other ills find a home where truth once lived.

I respect Chris’s strong assertion that gender is not a choice; that trying to change one’s “crippling sex-gender incongruence” does not work. I care about the word crippling. And in spite of those evangelical Christians who seem to preach about hell like they want you to go there (we all know the type), I think we all are concerned about the word crippling. But our approach is to ask “What can we do to change the situation?” rather than to simply try and make the world more accepting. It’s like the difference between radical surgery and hospice. One you do because you want to fix it. The other you do because nothing else worked and you resign yourself to what doctors say is inevitable. Genuine, Bible-believing Christians want to fix it. I understand that we have not expressed that in love, and I understand that even when we do, those words may still be heard as offensive to the segment of society who is experiencing life as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. But we want to fix it.

Unfortunate Disconnects

Finally, I think Chris’s last paragraph asserting an improper fixation on children’s genitals is unfair and is as unnecessary as is the implication that any of us would ever condone violence against transgender individuals (or anyone in the LGBT community). That’s not who we are. And I guess I want to address the concept of “homophobia” or “transphobia,” though not here and not yet, except to say that I don’t identify with the idea that we are afraid of homosexuality or transgenderism, etc. in the sense that we are concerned that it may hinder our quality of life or that we are necessarily afraid that we ourselves will become homosexual or transgender (though since we largely see these as being in the realm of choice or at least being environmentally influenced some of that may play a part). Ours is a pursuit of truth and a desire to fulfill the Great Commission, and a genuine concern for people.

I do have some questions:

-What was the earliest point that behavioral scientists or psychologists began to make a distinction between sex and gender?

-How much influence does environment play in gender identity?

– Are there transgender individuals who are happy to be transgender?

-Do transgender individuals claim that there is absolutely no reason to think that the elevation of transgenderism, etc. will ever have an effect on children who are what you refer to as cisgendered but who are bullied for other reasons, thereby leaving them vulnerable to suggestion?

1 I use the word “evangelical” with more and more reserve since I can no longer be confident that everyone is reads the same meaning into it any more. But the word “Christian” is worse since even more heresy is found under that rubric than the word evangelical.

2 Not sure is transgenderism is a fair way to reference here.

3 American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster 1828, (New York: S. Converse, 1828), gender.

4 The concept of “bottom-up” or “top down” applies here in that a growing number of people want to choose truth based on what humans experience or desire rather than from a perspective of what God desires.

 

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

Why the focus on homosexuality, abortion, evolution? Aren’t all sins the same in God’s eyes? Part 1

By Scott Fowler

I am frequently asked if all sins are equally bad or if some sins are worse than others. Sometimes I just hear the statement being made in passing, “Well, we know that all sins are equal in God’s eyes.” Usually, this idea is tied to the sentiment suggesting the Church should not spend so much time harping against homosexuality, abortion, and evolution (the “big 3”), and spend more time dealing with Christians who lie, cheat on their taxes, and commit adultery. Surely those things are just as destructive as the big 3.

Without a doubt, sin separates us from God. And, barring a discussion on the possibility that the punishment of hell will be intensified upon its inhabitants by degrees based on the degree of their sinfulness, we can agree that once a person goes to hell it may not matter at that point whether it was murder or lying or tax evasion that sent him or her there. He or she is separated from God.

So, why does the believing Church spend so much time talking about the big 3? Aren’t all sins equally bad in God’s eyes? Let’s gradually get to the first question by starting with the second. And let’s begin the discussion by asking a series of questions and by considering a few different scenarios.

Is there a difference between the sin being committed by a young man and woman, both single, both unmarried, who are engaging in premarital sex, and a man and a woman, both married to other people, having an affair with one another? How do we normally feel about the young couple that doesn’t want to wait compared to how we feel about the couple cheating on their spouses? There is something categorically different between the sin of the young couple and the sin of the adulterers. Both couples are engaged in damnable sins,1  but there is something extra deceitful and hurtful happening with the adulterous couple. They are in deeper. They are not only disobeying God but they are breaking their vows and hurting their children and living a lie! Perhaps the question is not “Is one sin is worse than the other?” but rather “How deeply mired in bondage is one couple compared to the other?” or “How many people are hurt by the sin of either couple?” Let’s keep going with more questions and another scenario.

Is there anything inherently different between the sin of adultery happening between a man and a woman and the same-sex sexual relations happening between two gay men? Both “couples” are committing damnable sins,2 but something is different. While we could never condone or justify the sins of the adulterous couple, we are not surprised when people find themselves in the midst of emotional and physical attraction and falling into the trap of adultery. Why? Because, while an adulterous affair is shameful and sinful, we understand that men are attracted to women and vice versa and, given the right set of circumstances, they can all too easily find themselves in a weakened state and falling into the grossest of sins. And while we would condemn such acts, we would not normally say that there was something unnatural about what they are doing, beyond the view of what is natural for believing Christians, because it is normal for men to be attracted to women, etc. The issue in this case is that the man and the woman have failed to stay faithful to God and to the ordained relationships they have already committed to. Similarly, we do not say that a man has sinned because he has the capacity to be tempted by looking at another woman, but we would say that he is responsible for what he does with the temptation.

But when it comes to homosexuality and two men or two women in same-sex sexual relations with one another, we do not simply say that they have done the wrong thing with temptation. Much more is involved. While it is true that the man and the woman who are having an adulterous affair with one another have indeed gone against God’s laws by giving themselves to forbidden sexual relationships, their violation is different in kind than that of the two men or two women involved in forbidden same-sex sexual relationships. The homosexual relationship represents a twisting of God’s laws in a much deeper, more deviant way. God certainly condemns sex outside of marriage and sex that violates the marriage bed and vows, but He has not condemned human heterosexual sexuality. He reserves the right to decide for us who we should mate with, but He has not condemned the human sexual act between a man and a woman. He has, in fact, endorsed it and encouraged it within the bounds of His laws. In the case of homosexuality, He has condemned the act altogether; forbidden it. So, homosexuality is in a different category because it twists what God originally intended in a way that premarital sex and adultery between a man and a woman does not. There is no way for the homosexual act to ever be sanctioned by God.

If we imagine a person simply making a random decision to engage in a same-sex sexual act, we could also imagine saying to that person, “Don’t choose to do that anymore. It’s wrong.” We might not understand why a person would do such a thing, but there it is. But when we come to the realization that gays and lesbians have this desire (not born with it but somehow mired in it) and that they approve of it, now we are dealing with individuals who, in the face of God, are not just saying we want to have sex, but we want to have sex in a way that you have said is not natural, normal, or accepted.

As mentioned above, perhaps the question is not degrees of sinfulness, but degrees of bondage. The stronghold of homosexuality is different in its intensity than, say, a little boy of four who has trouble telling the truth, although Stephen Charnock wrote,

“All sin is founded in secret atheism. Atheism is the spirit of every sin; all the floods of impieties in the world break in at the gate of a secret atheism, and though several sins may disagree with one another, yet, like Herod and Pilate against Christ, they join hand in hand against the interest of God. Though lusts and pleasures be diverse, yet they are all united in disobedience to him. All the wicked inclinations in the heart, and struggling motions, secret repining, self-applauding confidences in our own wisdom, strength, &c. [sic], envy, ambition, revenge, are sparks from this latent fire; the language of every one of these is, I would be a Lord to myself, and would not have a God superior to me.3 

For this reason, we don’t take lightly the little boy who tends to lie. But we understand that little boys and girls sometimes have trouble with the truth and need teaching concerning the reason the truth matters. And although we have all known people who are liars, it is rare to find someone who vouches for lying or claims that a life based on falsehood is a noble path to choose.

What I am trying to say is that at least one of the reasons that homosexuality is seen differently than other behaviors that the Church considers to be sinful is that the bondage and the stronghold that it represents is significantly different and arguably more difficult to deal with than the occasional temptation to swear when one hits his or her thumb with a hammer.

I will deal with the first part of the question in Part 2, but let me finish this article by saying that I am more and more sensitive to the argument against the believing Church that when it speaks against sin, particularly against homosexuality, that it is of necessity spewing hate out for homosexuals outside of the faith and now more and more inside even the evangelical church. To those arguments I would say that indeed many Christians have spewed hatred for the sin and that hatred of sin has been virtually indistinguishable from the feeling they have expressed for the homosexuals themselves. For that I am deeply sorry and in agreement that Jesus loves the homosexual and so does the true believing Church. However, in our present culture, any expression of disagreement is seen as hate. But the believing Church has no choice but to speak the truth. So, all I know to do is to genuinely love people, declare the truth from that genuine love, and become sensitive to ways in which we can better communicate that genuine love.

Stay tune for Part 2.

1 Revelation 21:8 says: But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

2 Along with Revelation 21:8, Romans 1:18-32.

3 Stephen Charnock, B.D., Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Volume I (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987; reprinted from the 1853 edition by Robert Carter & Brothers), page 93, emphasis mine

 

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/