Woodstock Fifty Years On

Woodstock happened a half century ago this month. I mean the rock concert, which was actually not held in Woodstock, but no matter. “Three days of fun and music,” as the owner of the property famously put it. The music spilled over into day four, when Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, played to a small and burned out group of several thousand at 9:00 AM. “Woodstock” supposedly defined the counterculture and what being a hippie was all about. The New Yorker recently ran a review of a 38-CD set which chronicles nearly every minute on stage of that mythic event. (No, I won’t be buying it.) So, having been a hippie and having seen the movie—I was too young (12) and too far away (Alaska) to attend—I offer a few reflections.

In case you missed the basic facts: The festival drew tens of thousands more people than expected, gate crashers forced it to become a free concert, the resources on hand were quickly exhausted, and it rained and rained, reducing the venue to a huge mud field. This great mass of hirsute humanity experience the best rock and folk music of the day (no jazz, sadly) by Santana, The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, partook copiously of illegal drugs, immoral sex, and generally tried to “blow their minds” in the process. Joni Mitchell wrote a haunting song about it called “Woodstock,” (which is by turns anthemic, optimistic, and nihilistic), although occluded roads forbid her come.

Woodstock was hailed by some as a new Eden, a utopia, a temporary hippie paradise of music, free love, and a vision of a possible future for America. Half a million youth shared their goods (and drugs and bodies), got along well in tough circumstances, and experienced a respite from the rest of “straight” and “square” society. “It really is a city,” said one agog man on microphone. Woodstock, by this view, was the antidote to the Viet Nam war and the “plastic” keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society.

The Jefferson Airplane’s song, “Volunteers of America” affirmed that we “got a revolution” because “one generation got old,” but “this generation got soul and had no hesitation at all.” How successful was this revolution, of which Woodstock was the epitome?

While Woodstock was relatively peaceful and idealistic, other gigantic music festivals were not. An eighteen-year-old man was murdered near the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels during a Rolling Stone’s performance at the Altamont Festival in 1969. In an act of unbridled and unequaled stupidly, the Hell’s Angels (aptly named) had been hired to do security. This event was widely hailed as the end 1960’s idealism. Of course, profiteering and egotism was never lacking from the production, promotion, and performance of such events. Original sin was not erased, nor even diluted.

The public nudity and sexual expressions at Woodstock represent an attempt to return to the garden without the mediation of Christ. Nudism has historically been an attempt to regain innocence without redemption. We don clothes in public because of the shame of sin, as Genesis teaches (Genesis 3). The body is not shameful, but sexuality in a fallen world needs to be guarded.

Woodstock did not regenerate America. Nor was it a pilot plant for a better world. It did give us some memorable music and an emblem for the impossible: peace on earth without Jesus at the center. I wonder how many Christians came who were interested in evangelizing the hippies. The Jesus movement was underway by this time, so it may have happened. No Christian rock groups performed at Woodstock, since Christian rock was still in its infancy. Pioneers Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman had yet to establish careers.

Woodstock was instrumental in legitimizing non-Christian forms of spirituality. The concert began, not with a pastor’s invocation, but with Swami Satchidananda, surrounded by meditators in traditional Indian garb, giving the official opening remarks and leading half a million American youth in chanting “OM.” He would later be known as “the Woodstock Guru” and was a leading figure in bringing yoga and Hinduism to America. The film Woodstock depicts a yoga teacher giving techniques to induce an altered state of consciousness through extreme breathing. Still, in 1969, yoga was an exotic practice. Today, it is mainstream and a supports a gigantic industry (consider yoga pants and mats), with its essential roots in Hinduism often obscured by the hawking of its purposed physical benefits. This domestication of yoga has done as much to bring the East to the West as any other factor.

The brilliant leader of The Who, Pete Townsend, performed at Woodstock and was a follower of the guru Meher Baba, who is credited as “Avatar” on their signature rock-opera album, Tommy (1969). Athough he advocated no particular religion, Jimi Hendrix exuded the mystical sensibility of a Gnostic or animistic sort, fueled by hallucinogenic drugs. He performed “Voodoo Child” at Woodstock, which he deemed in other settings as “a new national anthem until we can get a better one.”

The New Age movement was budding at Woodstock and the concert did much to speed it along the way to the “Me Decade” (Thomas Wolfe) of the 1970s, to prominence in the 1980s, and to mainstream status in the last twenty-five years. America has never been the same. Pew Research tells us that 25% of Christians believe in reincarnation. Oprah Winfrey is considered a spiritual guru to her millions of fans. Many Christians practice yoga without a second thought—or even first thought—concerning its origins or spiritual dangers.

The term psychedelic was coined to give a favorable interpretation of drugs that were technically called hallucinogens. The latter term means a chemical substance that when ingested produces hallucinations—that is, something that artificially produces delusions. But the term psychedelic connotes a substance that when ingested enlivens or augments the psyche. The Jefferson Airplane reveled in this notion in “White Rabbit,” which was performed at Woodstock, hauntingly sung by Grace Slick. The last lines of the terrible poetry are:

When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Night is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head

Remember what the Dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head

Francis Schaeffer observed that the ideology of drug taking in the counterculture required an “escape from reason”—as in the death of “logic and proportion” in “White Rabbit”—in order to find some ultimate meaning apart from either Christianity or in any rational philosophy. As Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live?

Timothy Leary, for example, said that drugs were the sacraments for the new religion. Of course. . . this drug taking was really only one more leap, an attempt to find meaning in the area of non-reason. Charles Slack, writing of his long relationship with Leary, reported in Timothy Leary, The Madness of the Sixties and Me (1974) that Leary had said to him, “Death to the mind, that is the goal you must have. Nothing else will do.”[1]

This optimistic take on hallucinogenic drugs mostly died out by the mid-1970s and was replaced by recreational use and a return to pure hedonism. But it’s hard to keep a strong drug down. Hallucinogenic drugs are making a comeback.

In How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, best-selling author, Michael Pollan advocates for “blowing your mind” once again.  The psychedelic-drugs-open-up-mystical-realities people never really went away (a lot of them went into computers), but the claim has come back with more establishment backing of late.[2] Some boosters of these drugs call them “entheogens,” taken from the Greek for “the divine within.” It’s Woodstock 2.0, this time with much of “the establishment” behind it. And, of course, pot is legal all over this land, and stoner speak befouls the air.

Christianity offers a worldview and way of life more true, rich, and bracing than anything the neo-romanticism of Woodstock has to offer.  Christians admit that we are a long way from the garden, but that we cannot find our way back unaided. Jesus Christ is the way back and the way forward, since he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). The church, not any festival, is the pilot plant for a new order of being in the world in which true worship is returned to the Creator based on the mediatorial work of his Son and applied to our condition to us through the Holy Spirit. Here is the deepest loving fellowship. The taste of heaven on earth is experienced as we devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

 

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A.. How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition) (Kindle Locations 2543-2546). Crossway. Kindle Edition. The best book-length treatment of the counterculture is Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

[2] Michael Pollan Drops Acid—and Comes Back From His Trip Convinced See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/books/review/michael-pollan-how-to-change-your-mind.html. On the idea that certain drugs lead to enlightenment, see Os Guinness, “The Counterfeit Infinity” in The Dust of Death.

Lessons from Seven Churches

I found my home in Evangelical Anglicanism in early 2007. My denomination is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNC). I visited Wellspring Anglican Church and never left. As I reflect on my church life, I am grateful to several churches for their faithfulness to God. My list is not inclusive of all the churches I have attended. Having been a Christ-follower for over forty-two years, I will recount a few ways in which God has led and sanctified me for worship and service. Perhaps my reflections will edify you and stimulate you to enter deeply into the life of the church that Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

I cannot remember my first church experience. My parents had me baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage, Alaska in 1957. I am grateful for my parent’s concern and the church’s faithfulness to its doctrine. My first memory of this church was of attending a Sunday school class for a short time. I went a few times, but my parents didn’t insist on it. I was involved in a junior high school group with First Presbyterian, but don’t remember any biblical teaching—at least nothing that made an impression.

The church conducted my father’s funeral in November of 1968 after his death in a small plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. The pastor, whose name I forgot, said that Dad served those who “worked with their hands.” Indeed, he did. He was Business Manager for Labor’s Local #341 at the time of his death. He had been the first president from 1958-1968. In the summer of 2008, I attended a fine service at First Presbyterian and had lunch with the Pastor and his family. It was a sentimental time for me. However, I did not come to know God in Christ through this church.

During my first year of college, God opened my soul to this truth through reading and witness. When I returned to Anchorage from Greeley, Colorado, half of my friends had become Christians. Both sides wondered what I would do. After many conversations with Christian friends and some remarkable experiences, I professed Christ in a public meeting and was soon baptized at Abbot Loop Community Chapel, the first church I knew well. Abbot Loop was a large and growing Pentecostal church. Nearly all my Christian friends attended there.  It was part of a movement that affirmed “the fivefold ministry” of Ephesians, chapter four. As such, the church had an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Given my nearly non-existent church background, I had no other ecclesiology to compare this with.

From Abbot Loop, which I attended in the summer of 1976, I learned the importance of evangelism and expressive worship. When my friends converted, they gave up drugs, sex outside of marriage, alcohol, and secular rock music. So did I. I heard preaching for the first time and began to learn the Bible. The first sermon I ever heard was an exegetical and theological disaster, however. We were told that Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins referred to two kinds of Christians: regular Christians and those who were “in the bride of Christ.” The bride-Christians, because of their zeal for the Lord, would be spared the Great Tribulation. The others would have to suffer through it, but could be saved in the end. The preacher said that he was not yet “in the bride,” but sought it out. It was a dramatic moment in the message and one that, most likely, made nearly everyone nervous about their eschatological status. I was, and I had just become a Christian a few days before that. I questioned my salvation much that first summer of my Christian life, despite my desire to live as a committed Christian. It seemed that my spiritual experiences did not match those of others, and I wondered—and worried.

In the fall of 1976, I began my second year of college in Eugene, Oregon. I attended First Baptist Church. There I heard excellent preaching and grew in the knowledge of Holy Scripture. I made friends with serious Christians and was involved in church every way I could. First B (as we called it) was not just non-Charismatic, but anti-charismatic. So, I left tongues and the quest for the miraculous behind in favor of Bible study, strong involvement in the college group, and a growing interest in apologetics and all aspects of Christian belief and practice. Jack MacArthur was our senior pastor and preacher. He was a grand orator and read his hour-long sermons. I ate it up. He had a capacious vocabulary and strong opinions, like his more well-known son, John MacArthur. Dr. Jack preached a series on the charismatic movement and one on cults. From Dr. Jack, I learned the confrontational nature of Christianity. If the Bible is true, then the defining doctrines of Mormonism and Christian Science are false. The Bible was the guide. If something was unbiblical, it was untrue. I will forever be grateful for First B and Dr. Jack, despite my later re-embrace of the charismatic dimension of Christianity.

After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1979, I attended Orchard Street Community Church, a small congregation that grew out a house church that started in the early 1970s as part of the Jesus Movement. We met in another church on Sundays. Many of the members lived in community homes, although I never did. Orchard was part of no denomination, but was strongly Evangelical. The ethos emphasized simple living and community. Coming Together in a World Falling Apart was a book that influenced the church. Our service included worship, a sermon, and periodic communion, sometimes served by non-leaders. (I led communion once, but am trying to forget that.) After the sermon, we took a short break and came back and were seated in a circle. Our repertoire for this largely unstructured time was prayer, silence, singing, and saying what was on our heart. The Quakers inspired us in this. Sometimes, people thought they had “a word from the Lord.” My anti-charismatic days were over  and I began to learn the meaning of silence.

The leadership asked me to join the preaching team in 1980. In baseball argot, I was the equivalent of the fourth starting pitcher. I was assigned a text to preach exegetically. I learned to submit myself to the text and was critiqued formally by other preachers. I also received encouragement from others in the church. During a sermon on a text in Malachi, I felt the power of God in preaching. There was a holy hush that was filled by God himself. I then knew that when I preached the Bible after careful study, the Spirit could work far beyond what I anticipated. My aspiration is to preach “as an oracle of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Stuart Smith was one of our pastors and became a lifelong friend. He was an able teacher, a gentle spirit, and a man whose cheerfulness and determination continues to amaze and inspire me. Stuart suffers from a rare degenerative condition that progressively robbed him of his physical strength, but only deepened his spiritual strength. My chapter, “Rejoicing in Lament,” in Walking through Twilight, is about my dear friend.

Geneva Chapel was the Christian Reformed Church that Rebecca, my departed wife, and I attended during my two years of graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin (1984-86). Although I have a Dutch last name, I am half Italian and had no history with this fine denomination. When we visited, we both sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit through the worship. People were friendly and liked my last name. At Geneva, we found stability and dependability in both the leadership and in the church members. I was introduced to liturgy, although less involved than what I now experience at, Wellspring Anglican Church. One Sunday, I served as “liturgist,” which meant that I selected a few hymns and Bible readings. I liked that. Little did I know how significant liturgy would become. Geneva also asked me to preach several times. After one sermon, a man said, “I think you missed your calling. You should be a pastor.” I was encouraged by this but continued to pursue a more academic and campus-ministry-based service. However, I would continue to preach over the years in many churches. Besides preaching, the Spirit has made me more pastoral over the years of study, suffering, and living.

While on sabbatical from Denver Seminary in 2006, Becky and I lived in Sun City West, Arizona. At this time, I served as a part-time pastor at Covenant of Grace Fellowship in Phoenix, a nondenominational, charismatic church.  The pastors, Len and Sharon Griffin, are long-time friends and earnest servants of Christ and his church. I served this fellowship through teaching, preaching, and mentoring. Sadly, Becky was too ill to attend the services or events. Covenant of Grace was a haven for many African immigrants, particularly those from Liberia. I was impressed by the church’s willingness to adapt to a new people group who unexpectedly began to attend about fifteen years ago. Their worship was expressive and charismatic. At the time, I was more reserved. Len and Sharon reviewed my time of service there. Two things stand out. First, I could improve my introductions to sermons. True enough. Second, I should be more expressive in my worship. True enough—although this took some time to learn. Now I endeavor to throw myself into worship as much as I can, regardless of how I feel.

I will unfairly skip several churches which benefitted Rebecca and me over the years and conclude my ecclesiastical journey with my present fellowship, Wellspring Anglican Church, in Englewood, Colorado. After returning from my sabbatical in Arizona, I visited Wellspring because of my growing interest in liturgy and because it was pastored by two outstanding Denver Seminary graduates, Billy Waters and Rob Paris. While in Sun City West, Becky and I attended the Saturday afternoon service at Crown of Life Lutheran Church, which was only a few blocks from where we stayed. We appreciated their liturgy and welcoming spirit. One of the pastors quipped that when we attended, it lowered the average age in the congregation to eighty. (Sun City West is a retirement community.) After my first visit, I have never attended any other church, unless I was traveling, sick, or preaching elsewhere. I found my home after a long sojourn through many churches with many strengths and some weaknesses. Let me explain, starting with preaching.

As an intellectual Evangelical, preaching is essential to my appreciation of a church and my spiritual growth. The truth of Scripture should be carefully and convincingly expounded. This is nonnegotiable. Many years ago, Becky and I visited a reputable and large church in Seattle. The pastor was renowned as a superb preacher. He was not. He was an excellent speaker, but we referred to his messages as “balloon sermons.” They were colorful, but quickly floated up in the air and out of sight; they lacked gravity. I have heard some of the best preachers, and I have heard not a few bad ones. (One message I heard contained five logical contradictions.) For a time, I felt almost a spiritual obligation to dislike most sermons, because my standards were so high—and, often, because I was so arrogant, thinking that I could do better. This is never true at Wellspring, except for the occasional visiting preacher coming from outside our denomination. The sermons (or homilies—I’ll explain that shortly) are biblically based, exhorting, and encouraging.

Rob Paris planted a new church a few years ago, so our regular preacher is Billy Waters. Billy is the best preacher I have sat under. In his messages, I always feel the warm urgency of the gospel. He encourages and exhorts; it is not one or the other or neither, but always both. Pastor Billy casts a consistent vision for the church and, by God’s grace, Wellspring is glorifying God through worship, formation, and mission. We want to serve our local community and plant churches throughout Denver in gospel-deficient areas. We serve the underserved in Englewood through our food bank and medical services.

But why did I use the word homily and refer to my Pastor as Father Billy?  A homily is one aspect of the church’s liturgy. It is vital, but it is not necessarily the most significant part of the service. Since the enactment of the liturgy happens in several well-orchestrated stages or movements (and never without the Eucharist), the homily cannot go on forever without robbing the other aspects of the service of their sacred significance.

I have written a short primer on liturgy called, “Liturgy for the Low Church,” which can be found on line, so I will not belabor the elements of it here. The homilies in my church usually last no longer than twenty-five minutes. These are not “sermonettes for Christianettes.” However, as my pastor says, “Even if I preach a C- sermon, I know that the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole service.” (He never preaches C- sermons, by the way.) Everything of spiritual significance does not depend on the skill of the preacher or the quality of the sermon, as it often does in non-liturgical churches.

Rebecca noticed that for several years that when I returned from a Sunday service, I was often angry. (She was usually too ill to attend with me.) Much of my dismay was due to my own arrogance or judgmentalism, but not all of it. I never feel that way now. Thanks be to God!

Each church along life’s way has helped sustain and deepen my Christian existence. I am grateful for all of them. Perhaps this recounting of my journey will encourage you to find and commit to a godly church. Church involvement for the Christian is not optional. How can you believe that Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18) and not be a living, growing part his unstoppable church? Christ bought the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Since it is that important to God, should it not be important to you?

 

 

 

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Muslims and Christians: How to Get Along?

They both believe in one personal and transcendent God who has sent his prophets into the world. They both believe in sacred writings that record the prophetic revelations. They both believe that Jesus was a prophet who was sinless and born of a virgin. And they both worship with these beliefs firmly in place. We are speaking of Muslims and Christians, whose members comprise the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have become fascinated with the beliefs and practices of Islam, which is thefastest growing religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents. Increasingly, Muslims are immigrating to the West. In various American cities, it is not uncommon to find mosques — many of them newlybuilt — and to see women in the traditional Muslim dress mingling with American women dressed quite differently.

In light of this, many Westerners wonder what do Muslims believe and why. They also question the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but merely in different ways? Should Christians seek to present their beliefs to Muslims in the hope that the Muslim might forsake Islam and embrace Christianity? Or is this simply a waste of time at best or rude at worst?

Many instruct us to be “tolerant” and to refrain from “proselytizing” anyone. In the name of tolerance, some people say that Christians and Muslims should coexist without trying to convert (or otherwise challenge) each other because “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” This, many believe, should be good enough for Muslims and Christians. Many also believe this arrangement is good enough for the God they both worship as well. If both religions worship the same God, why should they worry about each other’s spiritual state?

Religion, God and Truth

If indeed Muslims and Christians worship the same God, there would be little need for disagreement, dialogue, and debate between them. If I am satisfied to shop at one grocery store and you are satisfied to shop at another store, why should I try to convince you to shop at my store or vice versa? Do not both stores provide the food we need, even if each sells different brands? The analogy is tidy, but does it really fit? Deeper questions need to be raised if we are to settle the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. First, what are the essential teachings of Christianity and Islam? Second,what does each religion teach about worshipping its God? Third, what does each religion teach about the other religion? That is, do the core teachings of Islam and Christianity assure their adherents that members of the other religion are fine as they are because both religions “worship the same God”?

In When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper. San Francisco, 2002), Charles Kimball argues that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. Kimball rightly observes that truth claims are foundational for religion. But he claims that believers err when they hold their religious beliefs in a “rigid” or “absolute” manner. So, he argues, when some Christians criticize the Islamic view of God (Allah) as deficient, they reveal their ignorance and bigotry. Kimball asserts that “there is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity” (p. 50). This is because the Qur’an affirms that Allah inspired the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Moreover, the Arabic word “Allah” means “God.” Are Professor Kimball and so many others who echo similar themes correct? In search of a reasonable answer, we will briefly consider the three questions from the last paragraph.

Christianity and Islam: The Claims, the Logic, and the Differences

First, what are the teachings that each religion takes to be absolutely true? Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).[1] Islam also rejects that God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).[2] These doctrines are cornerstones of Christianity. But God cannot be both a Trinity (Christian) and not a Trinity (Islam). This is matter of simple logic; it has nothing to do with religious intolerance or being “rigid.”

 Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

For Christianity, humans are corrupted by an inherited sinful nature that cannot be overcome by any human means (Ephesians 2:1-10). But Islam denies that human have a deeply sinful human nature, claiming that we sin because we are merely weak and ignorant.[3] Christianity teaches that salvation is secured only through faith in the achievements of Jesus Christ — his life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16-18). Islam, however, implores its followers to obey the laws of the Qur’an in the hopes that they will be found worthy of paradise.[4] Since these two views contradict each other, both views cannot be true.

Different views on worship

Second, how does each religion say worship should be offered to God? Muslims deem worship of the Trinity to be polytheistic and, thus, blasphemous. Worship of Jesus—whom they deem only human—is anathema. Yet these beliefs are essential for Christian worship. One must worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Worship requires assent to the truth of God (the Trinity), belief in the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and submission to God’s will. While Muslims emphasize submission to Allah (“Islam” means submission), they do not submit to the God revealed in the Bible. This exposes another irreconcilable difference between Islam and Christianity.

How Islam views Christianity and vice versa

Third, what does each religion make of the other one? Muslims and Christians have historically tried to convert each other, since they both view adherents of other religions to be misguided. Islam seeks converts worldwide because it believes Allah is supreme over all and must be so recognized. Christians are commanded to take the gospel into all the nations and to baptize converts into the name of the triune God of the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20).

Neither Christianity nor Islam can logically endorse the other religion’s distinctive claims and practices without denying its own.

Much more needs to be discussed concerning Muslim and Christian relations in a religiously pluralistic world. However, we must conclude that despite their common monotheism, Islam and Christianity have very different views of God, worship, and mission. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that they worship the same God. Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably.

NOTES

[1] See The Qur’an, Surah 112:1-4, which denies that God “begat” a son. Surah 4:171 commands Muslims to not say “three” with respect to God; see also Surah 5:73. However, the Qur’an claims that the Christian doctrine of Trinity affirms that it is comprised of the Father, the Son, and Mary (Surah 5:116). The Bible, however, never attributes deity to Mary. For more on how the Qur’an understands Jesus and the Trinity, see Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 184-195.

 

[2] See The Qur’an, Surah 5:115-18 where Jesus is reported to have denied his own deity; see also Surah 9:30-31.

 

[3] See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 1997), 89-90. 

 

[4] See the Qur’an, Surah 36:54; see also Surah 82:19. 

Two Views of Suffering: Atheist Existentialism and Christianity

By nature, we all avoid suffering, and suffering comes in so many varieties. We attend funerals and sob. We visit a loved one in a psychiatric unit and wonder how live ever got this bad. We consider animal cruelty and are appalled and saddened. A military dog dies of sorrow immediately after his soldier is killed in battle. A mother laments over her son’s heroin addiction. A son agonizes over this father’s imprisonment. A seventeen-year-old commits suicide, leaving a hole no one can ever fill.

But what of it all? By nature, we seek to avoid suffering in ourselves and in those we care about. Much suffering is unavoidable (such as many illnesses); but much of it is avoidable, but still afflicts many who become haunted by guilt, as in alcoholism. What can the sighs, groans, headaches, tears, and sleepless nights tell us about the meaning of life? Can philosophy find clues in these myriad maladies on how to live a truer and better life?

Trying to answer these questions is the quest of a lifetime, and, one hopes, an examined lifetime. I offer only prods to this end. Prompted my own and my wife’s suffering, due to her dementia, I have much pondered on the meaning of suffering philosophically and, of course, existentially (many of which can be found in my book Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness–A Philosopher’s Lament). I will briefly compare two views of suffering, that of atheistic existentialism and of historic Christianity.

Atheistic Existentialism and Suffering

I thought that atheistic existentialism had passed from the intellectual scene by the mid-1980s, having been eclipsed by New Age thought and postmodernism. But its demise was, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Gary Cox has labored to rehabilitate existentialism (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) through a number of short, snappy books such as How to be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess, a longer biography of Sartre. We even find The Dummies Guide to Existentialism.

"Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned." - Jean-Paul Sarte

Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned. Humans turn up and must define themselves, living without a “heaven of ideas” or the divine Amen. As Sartre famously wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasized the necessity of free choice to make an authentic life. De Beauvoir stressed the “ethics of ambiguity,” the right and the meaningful is not spelled out anywhere. We interpret life as we will—with no Hermes at our side. Heidegger claims that we are “thrown” into existence, suffering the anxiety of intrinsic alienation, and must experience “being unto death.”

For these thinkers (despite their differences), suffering is intrinsic to human being. For Sartre, we are “condemned to be free” and, as he says in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” There is no objective meaning to suffering, but only our subjective meaning in suffering. While Camus denied being an existentialist (as did the later Heidegger), he, like Sartre, et al, found meaning only in the absurd revolt against meaninglessness. Hence his book, The Rebel. The hero of Camus’s The Plague fights against the mysterious plague that ravages his town, knowing his task is futile. Somehow, amidst the ruins, a kind of absurd meaning is found. But that meaning does not extend beyond the individual. No one can align herself with a broader meaning of suffering in relation to a greater good or a hidden purpose that transcends the merely human and terrestrial. To use Kierkegaard’s term, “the audit of eternity” is lacking.

To endure such suffering, according to Existentialism, is simply our lot. We should not resign ourselves to it passively, but create meaning in the midst of it. As Sartre emphasizes, we have “no excuse” for leaving our post by blaming our biology or upbringing. That would be “bad faith,” not authentic freedom. Suffering, for Sartre, is part of the human condition of being who are always in process, but without an objective end or objective meaning to our becoming. All the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and there is no Atlas to help us.

Going further, Sartre says that man is “the desire to be God.” We yearn to be what we are without the instability that freedom brings, but we also yearn to be totally unconstrained and free to do as we will. But, says Sartre, this is impossible for a finite being qua finite being, and there is no infinite being (God) to synthesize this freedom and stability. Because of all this, man is “forlorn.”

Christianity and Suffering

Suffering is not the starting point for the Christian worldview, but, nevertheless, it throbs in its philosophical marrow. Blood is shed everywhere, but that blood is not without a voice. Humans did not just appear without forethought or purpose, but are integral to a divine plan. But this plan is fully made known—and often largely obscured—to erring mortals.

For the ancient Hebrews and Christians, death and suffering are rooted in our responsibility to God and others. The world and its finite stewards were created good, but that original felicity did not last. A rift occurred between Creator and created such that those who bear God’s image also bear God’s displeasure. In Christian terminology, this is called the fall.

As Pascal wrote in Pensées, man “could not bear so great a glory without falling into pride.” In The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, Soren Kierkegaard considers the suffering of anxiety in explicitly Christian terms.

Things go wrong; blood is shed; tears are many. Cain slays his brother Abel out of his jealousy. His blood cries out from the ground for justice. There are wars and rumors of wars. Women and men waste their lives. Perhaps no other passage in the Hebrew Bible sums up our sorry condition better than the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, which I quote in the King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun,

that the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong,

neither yet bread to the wise,

nor yet riches to men of understanding,

nor yet favour to men of skill;

but time and chance happeneth to them all (chapter 9, verse 11).

The practice and skill of lament is how the biblical authors and the Jewish and Christian traditions come to terms with suffering. This world is broken and that cannot be hidden. Humans ought to recognize the losses and injustices of life, and make that know to heaven. This includes inexplicable suffering, lamenting over one’s moral failings, and paying the heavy prices of suffering for one’s religious convictions. Perhaps sixty of the one hundred and fifty Psalms fit in the genre of lament. The writers cry out to God and unburden themselves in their sorrows. But these are prayers, not the voicings of unheeded anguish. The reader finds anger, impatience, and even despair in these poems. They cover the gamut of sorrow, all brought before God. Man is not a useless passion. His passionate suffering and grief may be brought before God who is there and who hears him.

Psalm twenty-two was on the lips of Jesus as he was crucified before the audience of his fellow Jews and his Roman executioners: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This wail of dejection was also a prayer. Christians affirm that somehow this suffering heals the rift between God and man. Suffering was never more real than here, but suffering is not the final word, since these were not Christ’s final words.

A short essay cannot adjudicate between the Existentialism and Christian account of the meaning of suffering. I offer it simply to illuminate the landscape of possibilities under the sun.

 

 

 

A Royal Ruin: Pascal’s Argument from Humanity to Christianity

The Bible is God’s anthropology rather than man’s theology—Abraham Heschel

We humans often puzzle over our own humanity, scanning our heights and our depths, wondering about and worrying over the meaning of our good and our evil. No other animal reflects on its species like this. Here, and in so many other ways, we stand unique among living creatures. Why does a young student go on a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, murdering thirty-two fellow humans, and then kill himself? Why does evil strike so hard and so erratically?

In spite of these upsurges of human evil, we are also struck by the beauty, courage, and genius wrought by human minds, hearts, and hands. After every tragedy, heroes emerge who rescue the living, comfort the dying, and put others above themselves in spontaneous acts of altruism. Humans make machines made to torture others, and humans make music sublime in its ability to give pleasure. Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn ponders the complexities and contradictions of humanity in “The Burden of the Angel/Beast”—the distinctively human discomfort with being human and not understanding the origin and meaning of our own humanness.

We go crying, we come laughing.
Never understanding the time we’re passing.
Kill for money, die for love.
Whatever was God thinking of?

The meaning of human existence is a question as perennial as it is perplexing. It haunts our songs and our poems, it stalks our relationships, and it troubles our philosophies and religions.

In the seventeenth century, a young scientific and philosophical genius, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) marveled at our enigmas and inscrutability in Pensées.

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!

Yet this was no mere marveling. Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery. Pascal goes on: “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.”

Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery.

Pascal believed the answers were found in the Bible. We find greatness in humanity because we are made in the divine image. However, that image has been defaced (but not erased) through the fall into sin. There is something wrong with every aspect of our being, but we remain noble in our origin. There are, to invoke Cockburn again, “rumors of glory” found in humanity.

From the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, Pascal developed an argument for the truth and rationality of Christianity. While his ingenious argument has been reconstructed in more detail elsewhere, we will consider its basic structure, which provides a fruitful point of discussion with seeking and questioning people today.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other. Our nobility, expressed in the achievements of thought, for example, is due to the divine image. Because of this, we transcend the rest of creation. Yet we abuse our greatest endowments, wasting our God-given skills on trivia and diversions, because we know we will die and do not know what to do about it. We are the corruption of a former original. Pascal says:

The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.

In other words, we are royal ruins. We possess some truth, but we cannot rest content in what we naturally know. We feel our own corruption; and in so doing, we realize the human condition is somehow abnormal, flawed, and degenerate. In the context of surveying human greatness and misery in many dimensions of life, Pascal says: “It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.”

In surveying human philosophies and other religions, Pascal notes that they either exalt humans at the expense of taking seriously their weaknesses or reduce humans to nothing at the expense of their significance. In his day, many were impressed by the philosophy of the Stoics, who asserted that humans were great in reason and courage and partook of the divine essence of the universe. Yet they made little allowance for human weakness, cruelty, uncertainty, and fragility. Thus, they exalted greatness at the expense of misery.

On the other hand, various skeptics, such as Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), delighted in showing the weakness of human reason and the arrogance of our pretensions. Yet the skeptics downplayed our ability to reason properly and the significance of human achievements in science, art, and elsewhere. As Pascal said, they should have been more skeptical of their skepticism.

While the specific writers that Pascal addressed are not commonly discussed today, the tendency either to overrate or underrate humanity is still with us. Many examples abound, but I will briefly inspect one worldview that today overrates humanity: the New Spirituality (or sometimes called New Age spirituality).

The New Spirituality is an amalgamation of ideas drawn from many sources. But whether it is the best-selling book, The Secret (hawked by Oprah Winfrey), the popular books by Deepak Chopra, or the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know,” the New Spirituality claims we are divine beings who can tap into unlimited potential through a change in consciousness. (In this way, it is somewhat similar to Stoicism.) We are limited not by our sinful condition, but only by negative thought patterns. The “secret” of The Secret is “the law of attraction”—we attract good things to ourselves through positive thoughts and negative things to ourselves through negative thoughts.

This blind optimism and inflation of human abilities appeals to our pride, but it is radically out of alignment with reality. Yes, humans achieve much of what they conceive, but there are limits for finite beings qua finite beings. Thought itself does not create reality ex nihilo. Moreover, humans inflict evil on others willfully and repeatedly. We cannot explain this away on the basis of the negative thoughts of those who are victimized. Consider the millions of untouchables (or Dalits) of India. Their three thousand years of subjugation by the upper Hindu castes cannot be explained on the basis of low self-esteem in the Dalits. That would blame the victim unjustly. Rather, human beings, given their fallen propensity to exalt themselves over others artificially, have unjustly oppressed these image-bearers of God for three millennia. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is a fact of human history, in India and everywhere else under the sun. Even a royal ruin should be able to see that and search for an adequate answer.

The Christian worldview conserves both our greatness and our wretchedness in a profound revelation, something not available to unaided human reason, as Pascal points out:

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.

The biblical account of our creation and fall best fits the facts of human reality, argues Pascal. He does not condemn reason in toto, but rather points out the limits of what can be known apart from divine revelation, which encompasses spiritual and cosmic realities not available to finite and fallible knowers when shut up to themselves. However, Pascal counseled that we must “listen to God”—meaning, deeply attend to what God has communicated in the Bible—to discover this liberating truth.

 

 

The Philosophy of Gender

Ideas have consequences, but few understand how the consequences are rooted in, and flow from, those ideas. Inextricably related issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity illustrate this point and require philosophical analysis. Spurring this article is the Supreme Court’s egregious decision that a ban on same-sex marriage is illegal. Worldview assumptions behind this jurisprudence must be exposed to the light of reason.

Gender is now considered a flexible concept; it is not a given in one’s nature. Biology now has nothing to do with gender. Rather, one takes one’s gender by identifying with a wide range of possibilities. The nature of a human organism—down to the DNA—is irrelevant to gender identity. The tradition of the human race that male and female are fixed and perpetual categories of being mean little to the gender experimentalists. Men may identify as women (and perhaps have a sex change operation); women may identify as men (and perhaps have a sex change operation); men may identify as bisexuals; women may identify as bisexuals. Male or female may identify as partially heterosexual and partially homosexual. And on it goes.

How did this reassigning human identity come about? Before we try to answer that, consider the metaphysics of the movement in relation to Christian theism, a worldview increasingly rejected by the power brokers of American culture.

Christians, along with Jews, know that universe has an intrinsic meaning given by an infinite and personal God, the Creator and Designer of the universe. This Being, who thinks and speaks and acts, brought humans into existence as His representatives; as such, they possess rationality, will, emotion, and relationality. As the first book of the Bible teaches:

God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and    increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

This statement is philosophically rich. Humans have a God-given nature and a constitution as male and female. This is a divinely-bestowed given. That is, humans are a particular kind of being, as is the rest of the living creation. Before the creation of humans, Genesis reports that:

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:24-25; emphasis added).

The word kind should not be taken in a biologically precise manner; rather, it speaks to a distinct form of being, an essence. God did not create the cosmos and humans in a value-neutral manner. On the contrary, the meaning and proper functioning of living entities are specified by their designer and worn in their very being.

While male and female are equally made in God’s image, their equality is not a matter of sexual sameness. Genesis, chapter two, tell us that God created humans as heterosexual being, whose sexual unity is found in marriage. After beholding the first woman, Adam broke into poetry:

“This is now bone of my bones
  and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
  for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:23-25).

Our first parent’s rejection of God’s order and command issued from the desire to redefine reality independently of God. Their rejection of God’s world on God’s terms resulted in the Fall, the effects of which have been experienced down through the ages (see Genesis 3; Romans 3:14-26).

Moving from creation to resurrection, the Apostle Paul affirms objectively real categories of reality—living and nonliving—in his great discourse on the resurrection of Christ and of Christ’s followers.

Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor (1 Corinthians 15:39-41).

One need not delve into Paul’s greater and detailed argument to discern his intent—God has specified the nature of things. Since this is so, creatures should heed their Creator’s design.

When one rejects the existence of God (or simply ignores him), one is not merely rejecting a philosophical or religious idea. One is also rejecting all ideas and practices that are uniquely supported by Christian theism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) understood this well. In his famous parable, “The Madman” (from The Gay Science) Nietzsche lets his prophet speak of the implications of “the death of God.”

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Yes, “they have done it to themselves,” by banishing God from their thinking, their living, and their culture. God is dead to the ungodly, but remains stubbornly alive as Creator and Judge. Psychologist Eric Fromm (1900-1980) wrote that in the nineteenth century God died. In the twentieth century man died. If man is not created by God, why care much about him? The grim harvest was the tens of millions murdered by Nazism and communism. In the twenty-first century gender has died, since man has no given nature by God. Gender is now unhinged from biology, history, logic, and religion. It is flexible, fungible, malleable, and endlessly fickle, since it need not obey anything objectively real.

Gender talk is everywhere; gender fact is nowhere. Facts make too many demands on free spirits.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), philosopher and social critic, discerned this break from God’s given reality in 1968 in his landmark work, The God Who is There.

Some forms of homosexuality today…are not just homosexuality but a philosophic expression. One must have understanding for the real homophile’s problem. But much modern homosexuality is an expression of the current denial of antithesis. It has led in this case to an obliteration of the distinction between man and woman. So the male and the female as complementary partners are finished. . . . In much of modern thinking all antithesis and all the order of God’s creation is to be fought against—including the male-female distinctions.

Schaeffer saw the source of the problem: People were denying the real antithesis between truth and falsity, between good and evil, between what God created and what man corrupted. But even Schaeffer—prophet though he was—could not have seen the extent to which reality would be denied in the name of love, tolerance, choice, and freedom.

Let us try to bring all this together. The philosophy that undergirds and animates this redefinition of gender is anti-essentialist and constructivist. Humans as male and female have no objective nature, qua gender. Gender is only a placeholder for the will of the identifier, who chooses gender not on the basis of anything stable or trustworthy, but only through erotic eccentricity. One constructs a gender identity, but without the aid of a blueprint. What one constructs, one can deconstruct—whimsy without end. And now this philosophy is backed by the full force of federal law. If you disagree, you will be punished. I will take this up in a later essay.

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

Christianity and Science: Reasons that Christianity Encourages Scientific Pursuits

Adapted from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2011, chapter five)

  1. The physical universe is an objective reality, which is ontologically distinct from the Creator (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 90:2; John 1:1).

2. The laws of nature exhibit order, pattern, and regularity, since they are established by an orderly God (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:18-21).

3. The laws of nature are uniform throughout the physical universe, since God created and providentially sustains them. Miracles are not violations of natural laws, but supernatural interventions at specific times and for specific reasons.

4. The physical universe is intelligible because God created us to know him, ourselves, and the rest of creation. (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 36:9; Proverbs 8).

5. The world is good, valuable, and worthy of careful study, because it was created for a purpose by a perfectly good God (Genesis 1). Humans, as the unique image bearers of God, were created to discern, discover, and develop the goodness of creation for the glory of God and human betterment through work. The creation mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) includes scientific activity.[1]

6. Because the world is not divine and is therefore not a proper object of worship, it can be an object of rational study and empirical observation.

7. Human beings possess the ability to discover the universe’s intelligibility, since we are made in God’s image and have been placed on earth to develop its intrinsic possibilities. The world and humans were designed for discovery.

8. Because God did not reveal everything about nature, empirical investigation is necessary to discern the patterns God laid down in creation.

9. The intellectual virtues essential to carrying out the scientific enterprise (studiousness, honesty, integrity, humility, and courage) are commanded as part of God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17) and are the available through the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:13-25).[2]

[1] On the significance and depth of the creation mandate, see Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976), chapter one.

[2] On the presuppositions of science, see also J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 198-201.

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