Monday, February 18, 2008

EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope

Do you remember how you felt the first time you read a book that coherently captured and explained some deeply-felt desire of yours? And if you're religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call yourself, also spoke directly to an unfulfilled need within your soul? Brian McLaren's latest book does exactly that for me. It stirred me and moved me. I found myself saying "Yes!" repeatedly, especially as I progressed through the book and he began to bring his arguments to fruition.

McLaren's book takes precise aim at our flawed social and economic systems and blows them apart using the words of Jesus, words that are as revolutionary today as they were two thousand years ago. It's a staggering irony that so many people who call themselves Christians in today's world (particularly American Christians) are completely comfortable with our free-market system and how it affects the rest of the world, oblivious to the inequity and oppression it causes in other parts of the world. McLaren asks us to consider what’s free about it. Is it free from any constraints? Free from accountability and responsibility? Free from restrictions that would make it more equitable for all involved? If so, what then is the cost of this freedom?

To change the way we think we must first change the way we view the world. Our "framing stories," as McLaren calls them, must all change. The stories we tell ourselves, or allow others to tell us, shape the way we deal with the world. Until people of conscience act to revise and rewrite these framing stories, and get people thinking in a new light, nothing will change. Christ's "framing stories," His parables and teachings that we find in the Gospels, are at complete odds with the status quo of the worldly hierarchy of His time...mainly the pagan Romans and the spiritually-compromised Pharisees.

McLaren points out correctly that Christ's message of rejecting the status quo—in His time, the world of the Roman Empire—and living life in a new way that treated all with respect was in essence turning the world upside down. Those who wish to exalt themselves would be humbled, and those who humbled themselves would be exalted. Those who wish to be the greatest must first be the servants of others. This radical worldview, so at odds with the worldview of the Roman Empire, is also at complete odds with the worldview of so many modern-day Christians, those who are willing participants and supporters of systems that corrupt and oppress those at the serving end. It also takes to task those people of faith who support wars that trade violence for more violence, combating aggressive terror with retaliatory terror, all the while helping large corporations grow rich through the manufacture and sales of arms and weaponry. It's no small irony that the largest seller and exporter of arms and weapons is the United States, and that those sold weapons often end up being used against us at some point. God will not be mocked: we reap what we sow.

Without giving away the point of the book (I think everyone should buy it and read it themselves), I will say that McLaren presents the radical message of Jesus in such a way that will either leave you squirming in your seat as you realize your own complicity in the machinery of injustice, or find you looking for a way to get involved at a personal level. It's a very powerful and well-considered book with a radical message that we hear over and over yet rarely heed: You're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem. This wonderful book will help you find which side you're on, and then regardless of which side, will provide you with the next step in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

ARTICLE OF FAITH: A Universe by chance, or design?

Just about anywhere you look these days in Science vs. Creationist debates, you’ll find someone stating "Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution as a process" and that's a true statement if you're referring to Darwin’s Special Theory, also known as Natural Selection. No one questions natural selection as it is observable and testable. The problem arises from insisting that natural selection within a species can account for speciation, and even ardent evolutionists from Gould to Margulis admit the big problems there. Gould's punctuated equilibrium theory was an attempt to account for the startling gaps in the fossil record, but unfortunately there's increasingly little science to support his theories.

That common descent has taken place is obvious. What drives large-scale leaps between species (and creates the gaps in the fossil record) is not. The few apparent transitional cases, such as Eohippus to Equus, appear as anomalies and not the norm. Farther confounding the issue is that the "transitional" horse species overlap at various levels.

As a whole, however, beneficial mutations happen far too slowly to account for the magnificent range of diversity and specialization we see in the world...and again, a number of prominent evolutionists are sounding the horn on that issue as well and have clearly stated the problems, some even calling for a post-Darwinian theory (Margulis).

On the surface, anyone can say that evolution is tried and tested when they're referring to the Special Theory...because it most certainly is a tried and tested process that takes place within a species. We can replicate it ourselves to some extent with the creation of different breeds of domesticated animals. But does it account for speciation and large-scale leaps? The jury is still out, as any intellectually honest person would admit.

In the end, I have to look at the Big Bang as the beginning of the issue. What was the cause of everything? Science can't answer that question because as we back up in time, science hits "Planck time" and breaks down right before we hit the singularity of the Big Bang. Science cannot give the cause of the Universe...that's an incontrovertible fact we must live with. To insist that the Universe had a purely natural beginning is purely a faith position, something some cosmologists have finally come to accept. I will openly acknowledge that my belief in a created Universe is a faith position. Will a “naturalist” admit the same? I doubt it.

We can continue to argue about whether or not evolution is a purely natural process, or one with intent and purpose behind it, but we won't get far because of the issue addressed above. To some degree, Darwin's personal philosophy was far more advanced than some of his modern colleagues today. He did understand a very important fact that seems lost on them. Even though Darwin wasn't familiar with the Big Bang theory, he did understand that the physical laws of science governed everything, and that nothing took place that didn't fall in line with those laws. Therefore, mutations of any sort, particularly large-scale ones that became new species, had to obey the laws of science. When they exceed those laws, or exceed a fractal expression of them, we must consider that something else is driving the process.

Scientists are reluctant to call in God, but Darwin himself wouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. To Darwin, something else was at work. Darwin revealed this in his second most popular work, one which few people read or quote (The Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domestication). He sensed correctly that beneficial large-scale mutations simply couldn't happen rapidly enough to account for the diversity of species we see in the world, given any amount of time. Because of this fact, Darwin, like his contemporary Asa Gray, believed that his own theory could not be an ultimate theory, a point he states quite clearly in the book.

That common descent from single cell to complex life took place is obvious. That variation within a species takes place is obvious. What drove (and still drives) speciation is far from obvious, and in fact presents several huge problems that scientists still struggle with. To claim that the issue is solved is false triumphalism built on consensus. The fact remains that unless you can determine the cause of the Universe, you cannot determine whether or not the pattern of common descent is "natural" or intended, whether it's chance or design. Any conclusions based upon an unknowable premise cannot be considered true...only hypothetical.

Scientists, because they must use the laws of science to validate an idea, cannot give a scientific cause for the Universe and the driving force behind the subsequent spread of life on this planet. As a Christian, however, I do have an that is made even more valid by the fact that it was written down 3,500 years ago and has only just been shown to be completely consistent with the known scientific record. Genesis and several other passages of the Bible state the progression of events in the same order as the discoveries of Science in the past 150 years. A universe that sprang from nothing, followed by invisible sub-atomic particles slowly forming into visible matter, and eventually living, thinking, breathing life. Genesis described it accurately (but as a deliberate act of God) , and science has confirmed it in the same order. Based upon the fact that the “natural origins” crowd must accept the cause of the Universe as a faith position, I find it infinitely more satisfying to choose God as the cause because it’s also much easier to accept on faith (with a dash of reason tossed in for flavor).

Monday, February 04, 2008

IDLE WORSHIP: Confusing the idol of nationalism with true faith in God

Like many American Christians, I grow more worried by the day at the displays of national pride that are tinged with images of God, as though belief in God is the equivalent of righteous military might. If there are two things that don't go well together, it's jingoistic patriotism and true faith in Christ. No matter how I view it, I can't see past the clear contradiction between Christ's calling and the demands of fervent patriotism. When I read articles such as this one, I can't help but feel that something’s gone terribly wrong. For a country that considers itself largely Christian, there’s little Christian about these public displays of faith, or what passes for it.

To call oneself a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, the Word of God made incarnate as Man, but so many of the public displays of faith I see have little to do with true discipleship, which requires surrender and forgiveness. Since 9/11, a large number of Christians have bought into the notion that actions against our country require swift, vengeful retribution, which couldn’t more of a polar opposite to the message of Christ. Imagine for a moment if a nation that’s largely Christian responded to 9/11 by forgiving our enemies for the attack, and then reaching our for reconciliation by attempting to find out what their problem with us entailed, and then collectively searching our souls for a solution. The thought alone is so radical that it probably never crossed anyone’s mind, yet that’s exactly what Christ would have called us to do. Yet try telling that to anyone and you get met with a blank stare, as if you were crazy.

I recently took an Internet tour of a number of websites with pro-Christian music videos, and left feeling very unsettled. Over and over again I saw the same thing...images of American might, largely military, being associated with God’s blessing America. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Do people really believe that an all-loving God, watching over a world filled with His creations, favors soldiers from one country and not those from another? Stop for a moment and look at the big picture from God’s perspective. Wouldn’t you imagine that He’s terribly saddened by the manner in which we all treat each other, and how we all attempt to justify our actions by claiming that God’s on our side, or that Americans are somehow more righteous and deserving than people of other countries? Or that the deaths of 3,000 American civilians on 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, but the deaths of nearly 4,000 Afghan civilians caused by our bombs was somehow acceptable and okay?

Back in the mid-1960s, Senator William Fulbright once commented that great nations often confuse great might with God’s favor, and once a country starts to feel that way, anything goes. America is in this position right now, and it’s a dangerous position to be in. The problem with this train of thought is that once we start thinking God is behind us, we will take any sort of action without bothering to examine our motives too closely. I hear so many Americans speak of how our soldiers are defending our freedoms by fighting abroad right now, but I would ask them this question: What freedoms specifically are they defending? Our “right” to a steady supply of foreign oil? Our right to keep our consumer economy rolling by exploiting the resources of other countries? No matter how you cut it, I don’t see how they’re defending my personal liberties.

Please understand that I’m in no way attacking the character of our young people who make up most of our fighting forces. They, for the most part, are dedicated and loyal people who believe they’re doing the right thing. My problem is with the powers-that-be who are misusing them terribly. As a conservative relative of mine recently commented, “Our all-volunteer army has become little more than a mercenary force for big business.” Sadly, I believe it’s true. Even worse, many conservative Christians continue to promote our wars as “us against them, good against evil,” and the madness continues.

In the end, we’re left with a choice many Christians don’t want to make. Either re-examine our faith and get it in line with the commands of Christ, or sink deeper into a corrupted, cultural faith that claims God as its leader, but instead worships the idols of nationalism and patriotism.