Thursday, June 3, 2021

Reality is complex

 Just posted this article on FB in response to a Franklin Graham post asserting that gender is totally binary. This article addresses the sources of homosexuality, and responds to Graham’s opinion in passing. It won’t be the last word, since science is an ongoing process. But it moves us forward if we have ears to hear.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Understanding unconditional Trump followers as Alternate Reality Gamers

 I've had several interesting experiences this week interacting about Trump and the election with people with whom I have long-standing connections. There is a seemingly impenetrable wall to real dialogue which I have struggled to understand. A fellow named Seth Abramson (you can google him) has a helpful insight.

Abramson begins with QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Trump is using and building on. QAnon is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) that attracts followers because it offers them an alternate reality ("alternate facts"!) in which to live. These folks are not interested in actual reality, accurate news streams, or the real meanings of words like "communism" and "socialism." What they care about is escaping from reality by means of the ARG, where words can mean anything the game makers say they mean, and where real understanding is irrelevant. When they enter the game they become action role playing figures (heroes) in real life without realizing that they are living in a make-believe world. Presenting them with accurate information doesn't help; in the Game, it's all, by definition, Fake News.

Abramson goes on to say that the ARG is dangerous in the real world, as we saw on January 6 in the Capitol. Although I never played Dungeons and Dragons, it's as if the QAnon/Trump election denying crowd really believe that they are living out a Dungeons and Dragons scenario in their daily life because it enables them to escape a reality that is very unpleasant and uncomfortable for them. It's a brain program that will continue to run and govern their beliefs and actions until its costs outweigh the benefits for them. The impeachment of Trump and the identification, arrest, and punishment of the insurrectionists by our justice system will hopefully bring that about.

Here's the link to Seth Abramson's posts below if you'd like to follow-up:

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Look at Our Near Future

This article from Medium would be considered optimistic in light of others I’ve read that expect the collapse to unfold by 2030. Or, from another standpoint, this one has the more negative outlook, since the suffering of all us earthlings will be extended over a longer time. In any case, the author attempts to describe our near future as realistically and as completely as possible in light of science.

Friday, July 19, 2019

A real friend wouldn’t treat you like this

I haven’t posted much about Christianity lately. But this post by Neil Carter deserves a wide readership. If Christianity isn’t working out for you the way you expected, it’s not your fault. There’s stuff going on that you may only be half-aware of.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Why 2019 Could Be a Difficult Year : Part 2

The basic idea, then, Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE), is that there is a strong likelihood that humanity may be gone from Earth as early as 2026, give or take a few years. Climate change is moving us inexorably toward the loss of human habitat. Population growth has already far surpassed what Earth can sustainably house. Out population is currently over 7 billion, whereas the planet can only maintain 2 billion of less.

I had never thought to question the basic assumption of politics, economics, and church ministry that the key to success is continual growth. But infinite economic and population growth in a finite space is not possible. Everything living has a life cycle - flowers, trees, butterflies, frogs, dogs and cats. And humans. The same is true of collectivities. Gardens have life cycle, and forests, and churches, and societies - and species, including the human species. In fact, the universe has a life cycle. Nothing lasts forever.

Primate species, of which humans are one, generally have a life expectancy of 800,000 years, it has been observed. I was okay with us all having another 600,000 years to figure out this human thing. But now it appears that we overreached, too far and too fast. Now the foreseeable future has a very near horizon.

When you think about it, the time left us will not be the familiar normal existence until one day it all goes black and empty. No. There will be unpleasant processes going on, building momentum, increasing their impact at an increasing rate. Not just weird weather, fires, floods and drought. Also food and water shortages, fuel shortages and power outages, internet unavailability, financial and economic collapse.

Although some cheerfully insist that we can easily fix all this, their voices are becoming fewer and more urgent. The truth seems to be that it is too late to fix it. if that is the case, then what?

Feel free to leave comments below.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2019 Could Be a Difficult Year

Last April, I came across scientist Guy McPherson's argument that global warming's feedback loops  will cause a snowballing of disastrous effects.

For example, growing amounts of carbon in the atmosphere from burning coal and petroleum retain more and more heat emanating from the earth that previously would have simply dispersed into space. This retained heat, among other effects, melts the polar ice caps at a faster and faster rate. When the ice melts and becomes water, radiation (heat) that was previously reflected back into space by the white ice (the albedo effect) is now absorbed by dark water where the ice used to be. This increases the rate of global warming, which then melts more ice, causing more radiation to be absorbed rather than reflected, and so on.

When the polar ice cap is completely melted, the water that is now where the ice was warms up at a much faster rate. It's like an iced beverage on a summer day; as long as a bit of ice remains, the entire drink remains at 32 F. But when the ice is gone, the heat energy that previously had gone into melting the ice now rapidly warms up the drink.

Once the polar ice is gone, even the winter temperatures (which are now milder) will be incapable of recreating the ice cap. There will be some ice that reflects radiation away from Earth, but the overall rate of temperature increase will continue to grow. Any new ice will melt agin.

The effects of this feedback loop are mild at first. But when the ice cap goes, which some have predicted would happen by September 2019, there will be an abrupt change for the worse, making this year's forest fires, hurricanes, droughts and rainstorms pale in comparison.

Sooner or later (sooner, actually), the abruptly changing climate will severely hamper the production of food. That's when society - civilization - will begin to collapse.

As if all this were not bad enough, McPherson and a growing number of other scientists are concluding that it is already too late to significantly slow, much less stop or reverse the process. There is a 30-year delayed effect between human actions and their effect on the climate, just as actual weather is the delayed effect of the planet revolving around the sun.

Over the last 8 months, I have read and listened to talks and interviews fairly widely in an attempt to confirm or not McPherson's basic ideas. He is a controversial figure, but I have yet to find an argument that undermines his case. On the contrary, I have observed other scientists in the field moving closer and closer to his view.

That view is that is is unlikely that a single human will be left on the earth in 2026, or perhaps 2030.

It’s okay to stop here and look at that last sentence in disbelief. Then you may want to take the time it takes to see if McPherson's case is credible. You could google "climate change and human extinction, polar ice caps," etc. Or you may want to forget about it, at least for now. That's okay, too, of course. 

If you find something that gives reason to reject McPherson's, I will be the first to celebrate.  If you see mistakes in my reasoning, please tell me. I prefer to know and face reality, wherever it leads. 

"Squirrel!!" is a key line in the wonderful film, Up. Soon after concluding that McPherson seems to be right, I wondered how to live my life in such a perspective. Walking in our backyard, I saw a squirrel. "What will the squirrel do if we'll all be gone in a few years?" I thought. The answer was obvious: it will look for nuts, bury nuts, dig up nuts, and eat nuts. Right up to the end, it will do what squirrels do. I'm going to do what humans do, what I do: try to understand what's going on, seek continually be a better person, to be consistently grateful, kind, and helpful. Love and interact with my family. And eat healthy, walk a lot, watch movies and my favorite tv shows, root for my sports teams, be politically aware and involved. 

(Disclaimer: I am writing from memory, which is not impervious to error. I will correct possible errors when I become aware of them. I look forward to your comments below as a way of "thinking together" toward a clear picture. With regard to predictions about the future, nobody is omniscient. There will always be unforeseen factors that come into play. The science of climate change is very complex. by remaining open-minded to new information we move closer to accuracy.)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Earlier this year, I came across a reference to Dr. Guy McPherson in the end notes of a book I was reading (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes). Intrigued, I began to check out his work. His disturbing prediction that we humans will be extinct by 2026 may, of course, be mistaken. It may not be. But even if he is just in the general ballpark, that is plenty sobering.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Brief, science-based story of us all

We humans are not broken, we are in process of developing, as persons, as communities, and as a community of communities. 
In our course of developing, our emerging abilities to communicate, compare, analyze, generalize, predict and imagine led us about 2500 years ago to wonder how and why things happen as they do. The desire to understand, assuage, and avoid suffering and pain of all kinds drove this intellectual quest. 
Some hypothesized, or imagined, an ideal, unchanging, invisible reality from which visible reality had somehow "fallen." They deduced that the remedy was to reconnect somehow with this invisible, unchanging goodness. Plato epitomizes this way of thinking. It led to the development of theistic religions as a means of coping and hoping. 
Others observed that everything is always changing, and that this constant change often brought loss and physical and emotional pain, as well as the fear of future loss and pain. Heraclitus typifies this approach. It led to the valuing of observing and critical thinking, then to the eventual emergence of science. 
Both approaches are transmitted from generation to generation. The former emphasizes the transmission of its definition of the problem and of its solution, to be embraced obediently and without tampering. 
The latter seeks to transmit a curiosity for, and an openness to, new information that may adjust, transform, or overturn conclusions reached by earlier generations. 
The former method is based on an original revelation of information from the invisible realm to one or a number of inspired oracles. Its knowledge is accessible to the limited portion of humanity that commit to the revelation by faith. These come to see themselves as special and chosen in some way. There will ultimately be a separating of humans into two groups, those who are included because of their acceptance of the belief system, and those who are excluded because they refuse. 

The second approach is based on knowledge available to all humans through observation and critical thinking. There is no division of humans into those who belong and those who do not, for all are in process. Hope for the future is that all humanity will learn to be open and discerning

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pascal's Wager Upside Down

Neil Carter's Godless in Dixie is my current favorite blog. A fellow member of The Clergy Project, Neil writes thoughtfully and incisively about Christianity, atheism, and passing from the first to the second.

In this post, Neil tackles the famous wager by the 16th-century French thinker, Blaise Pascal. The wager is simply that it is a better bet to believe in God and the afterlife than not to believe. Because if God and heaven really exist, then believing in them will bring infinite benefit, whereas not believing will bring unending suffering. If they do not exist, then you will lose nothing by having believed.

The logic appears irrefutable. Neil shows that it is, in fact, very mistaken. Enjoy the read, and the think!

Monday, December 22, 2014

LeRon Shults, "Christ Is Born(e)"

The author of this post, LeRon Shults, taught in the early 2000s at my alma mater, Bethel Theological Seminary. (See bio at the end of the article.) This was posted on the blog of The Clergy Project. It's not an easy read, but well worth the effort for those interested in the origins of religions and of Christianity.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 8: Have I Lost My Faith?

In my way of seeing things for four decades of my life, I would have regarded my current self either as having lost my faith, or as never having had genuine faith in the first place, depending on whether I was in one of my Calvinistic seasons. 

But I didn’t lose my sincere and deep faith. I followed through on it

You can see in the New Testament how Jesus, Paul, and others show how the Old Testament deconstructs the traditional Judaism of the time. They quoted Scripture to undercut sabbath observance, circumcision, temple worship with its sacrifices, dietary laws, and despising of non-Jewish peoples. These were the life-breath of Judaism’s identity in the first century. (Judaism has since evolved in some very positive directions, I hasten to point out.) 

Jesus was rejected by his own nation because he pointed out that their own Scriptures contained radical criticism of their religious teachings and practices. 

I came to see that following Jesus doesn’t mean believing everything that others said he said or said about him. The most radical way to follow Jesus is to learn from his way of thinking. 

When I did that, with help from numerous works by competent scholars, I saw that the New Testament deconstructs traditional Christianity just as the Old Testament deconstructed traditional Judaism

Gerd Thiessen, in his book Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach, observes that faith believes something because the accepted authority (a church, the Bible, a person) says to. Science, on the other hand, believes something on the basis of confirmed evidence. When I was 18 and a new Evangelical convert, I was asked if I believed that Christ would return again to Earth. This was a new idea to me, so I asked if the Bible said so. I was shown a verse that affirmed it, so I replied, "Yes, I believe it."

But the New Testament challenges that way of thinking. It invites us by its example to think critically about what we are told on the basis of authority, and to ask if it really is so. It ultimately supports critical, scientific thinking rather than automatic submission to traditional authorities and their requirements.

I suspect that this may be one important reason that science and democracy and secular philosophy developed in countries that were heavily influenced by the Bible. It was the natural outgrowth of the mind and spirit and method of the New Testament. And this would be why Christian colleges and universities that are founded to train young persons in devout service to Christ tend to become secular over time. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 7: Resurrection

The central tenet of traditional Christian faith is the physical resurrection of the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. The idea is that the resurrection is a historical fact, and therefore gives an indisputable reason to believe everything else that is claimed for Jesus, especially that he was (is) the incarnation of the eternal God as a human being, that his death was the payment for the sins of humanity that was necessary for God to be able to forgive our sins without being unrighteous, that Jesus ascended to heaven to rule over the earth at the right hand of God, and that he will return again to establish his rule on a renewed earth. Jesus' resurrection is also the basis for the Christian expectation that all the dead will be resurrected, judged by God, and finally either admitted to eternal life in the coming new world or sent to hell to be punished forever for their sins with zero possibility of escape. 

The entire body of traditional Christian teaching hinges on the resurrection. My early training as a fresh 18-year-old convert to Evangelicalism in college emphasized the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. As the apostle Paul himself wrote, "If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless" (1 Corinthians 15:14). 

Whenever I had doubts over the years, I always went back to the resurrection. Because it was true, everything taught by traditional Christianity was true. The resurrection was the proof of the totality. If the evidence for the resurrection did not hold up, traditional Christianity, by its own assertion, was useless. 

In the end, the evidence did not stand up. As I studied the widely divergent accounts of the resurrection in the four gospels, another way of understanding them became clear to me. These documents were the product of creative human efforts to make sense of the inexplicable death of Jesus by crucifixion at the hands of Roman occupiers. How could this man, the one they had come to believe was the Jewish Messiah, the ruler anointed (appointed) by God to destroy those very pagan oppressors and their evil rule over Israel, possibly be killed by them? 

Belief in the idea of the resurrection of Jesus enabled his followers to interpret his death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and to transfer to the future his conquering of the evil pagan powers on earth through whom Satan worked. 

At first, Jesus' followers were sure that his future victorious return would occur within a generation. That did not happen, nor has it happened since. There is no reason to believe that it ever will:
  1. The gospels do not record actual words of Jesus written down on the spot by secretaries, but recollections (memories) of his words shaped by decades of storytelling. Paula Fredriksen’s and Dale Allison's books on Jesus, the gospels, and the resurrection were especially helpful to me here, among many others.
  2. The idea of Christ reigning at the right hand of God in heaven is based on the Bible's ancient imaginative vision of the universe as a flat earth supported by pillars. Under it was hell, and above it was the hard dome of the sky. On top of the dome was a the throne of God (nicely illustrated in Inspiration and Incarnation, page 54, by Peter Enns).
I saw how all the major traditional teachings are based on a worldview/cosmology that is a brilliant attempt to understand the universe without the help of science, but which is very mistaken. I could not continue to base my life on such a misconception. 

A deep apprehension came over me with these thoughts. It felt as though my whole world was coming apart. 

But it wasn't. It was just my idea of the world that was coming apart. Reality was what it had always been. There was all the more reason to hope, to live wisely and responsibly, to make the most of the one life I have to live, not only for my own sake and for others, but also for the sake of generations to come. 

In fact, my earlier faith was not useless. The resurrection stories are a picture of how, in the real world, failure can be transformed into something that energizes and mobilizes for a greater good. The humans whose minds conceived of the resurrection were the fruit of a long and amazing process of evolution that brought into being human consciousness and its desire for purpose and meaning and the overcoming of evil and destruction. Jesus' life and teaching inspired this in his followers, as did his way of dying. 

Therefore I am still a Christian in the sense that I embrace the core values that I see in the New Testament witness to Jesus and in his followers - 
  • a love for truth and genuine understanding of myself, of others, and of the universe and its story
  • love for people as people beyond traditional tribal loyalties and hostilities
  • making every effort to grow and develop as a whole human being to the end of my days
  • working for reconciliation, wherever needed, based on these core values
  • a sense of responsibility for doing good to others, relieving suffering and its causes, and making the world a better place, and so contributing to its renewal. 
Part 8 to come: Have I lost my faith? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 6: A Parable of Huts

This may have first occurred to me, in a rudimentary version, in 1992-93 when I was doing a graduate program in missiology and world religions.

I imagine living in a lovely, well-constructed thatch hut. Everything I need is right there. It's a simple and good lifestyle. It is connected by covered passageways to many other similar huts. The inhabitants of all these huts are constantly coming and going.  There are windows. As I peer through them, I see that the world outside is a filthy mess. The people who live outside are evil, and the surroundings are chaos. They are confused and deluded, and need help. My friends from my network of huts and I speak often of how lucky (blessed) we are to be in our huts and not out in that horrific world.

There is a door to the exterior in my hut, hitherto unused. I decide one day to go out to help the poor, misguided people outside. There is indeed dirt and messiness out there, but the place doesn't look very much at all like what I had been seeing through my hut's windows. I saw many acts of kindness, and many of the people were easier and more enjoyable to be with that those in my network of huts.    

I go toward them and introduce myself. As I begin to tell them the good news of how excellent life is in our home, one of them silently points over my shoulder to my dwelling. When I follow his finger, I am surprised to see that my hut doesn't look all that great. It actually looks kind of rundown and unkempt.

I turn back to check it out more closely. To my surprise, the windows through which I had been looking for years were opaque. I couldn't see through them into my hut! I ran back inside, and there they were, as transparent as ever, showing me all that transpired on the outside. I ran back out, and what my eyes saw in the daylight bore little resemblance to the films magically appearing in the interior windows. My perception of the outside world had been seriously distorted since I had settled in the hut.

I began to explore the outside world. There were many other networks of huts. Some had closed doors and opaque windows just like mine. But others had transparent windows and open doors, some more than one! The passages connecting them were often just open paths. I was warmly welcomed in many of these and made to feel at home.

I wanted to stay out there exploring the places and the people and learning from them and sharing things that I had learned. There were some scary realities (and confused people, and bad ones) out there, but I preferred to see and deal with them rather than return to the illusory safety and comfort of my own hut. It no longer fit. It was no longer comfortable or reassuring. There was something better outside. Something truer. Something real. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 5

I remarked in Part 2 that the Bible doesn't give one clear teaching on any subject, including God. It speaks with many voices over many centuries and in many different situations. But it isn't exactly a hodgepodge. Just as it portrays  development in many of its leading characters - Abraham, Joseph, and David come to mind, as well as Jesus, as we saw in Part 4 - there is a certain development in the Bible itself, along with occasional backslidings into legalism. In the New Testament, for example, later epistles such as Ephesians and Colossians emit rays of such universal light as "Christ is all, and in all," even as the Book of Revelation backslides into themes of vengeance.

Moreover, I saw in my own experience and in that of others that experiencing the realities of life changes how we interpret the Bible. Christians who have gay friends and family members, for example, tend to become more open to equal rights and respect for gay people. Their care for people they love overrides what some Bible passages present as absolute rules. But this is okay, since we have already seen that parts of the Bible itself happily override what other passages say is absolute and eternal! 

Think of it: Who said that the Bible is the final word on any matter? Where did they get that idea? It was not from the Bible itself, for the Bible as we know it did not exist until 2-3 centuries after the documents it contains were written. 

If anything, the Bible teaches by example that development and growth are human and good. And it demonstrates that there is a real danger of reverting to legalistic ways when we are deeply anxious. 

As I came to realize this, the dividing up of behaviors into "sin" and "not sin" seemed overly simplistic to me. So did the idea of dividing the human race into two groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, in heaven and hell respectively, after death. We are all people in process, and the line between good and evil or, rather, between life-giving and destructive, runs right through the heart of each of us. 

As a newly converted Evangelical Christian in college, I was taught that the verb "to sin" means "to miss the mark," or target, and that the target is perfection. But the English "to perfect" refers to a growth process, as does the Greek.  So I have begun to think of my target in life not as never committing a sin by disobeying God, but as growing continuously in love and understanding. Maturity is then not measured by obedience to an external authority, but by the depth, accuracy, and completeness of a person's understanding what makes for life and love and truth, and their making choices that further those aims. 

I am aware, of course, of verses and arguments that can be marshalled against what I have written here. For many years I used them myself. But they have lost all plausibility for me, for the reasons given so far and because of what I think of as the parable of the huts, which I will share next time. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 4

Jesus Changes His Mind

Matthew 15:21-28 recounts a story of Jesus taking a side-trip to the cities of Tyre and Sidon. There a woman of Canaanite origin approached Jesus and called out for him to have mercy on her demon-tormented daughter. He doesn’t answer her at all, and says to his disciples that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she persists, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

What’s going on here? That’s what I wondered when I spoke on this passage a year or so ago. In college I had heard of a pastor who said that Jesus had sinned in his way of treating this woman who asked him to help her. I know, of course, that some interpreters try to soften Jesus’ calling her a dog, saying it was a term of warm affection. I wasn’t convinced, though I understood why they needed to interpret things in that way. 

What eventually came to mind was this: The adult Jesus may well have never have had occasion interact more than superficially with a Canaanite person before this moment. His initial response to her was the usual Israelite reaction to one of the apparently sub-human enemies that Joshua and the ancient nation were supposed to have exterminated because of the magnitude of their idolatry and sinfulness. Jesus was simply responding to this encounter according to the culturally transmitted cues he had picked up as a child. He reacted automatically to the situation as any other person raised in that culture would react. 

But then something really surprising happens. The Canaanite woman stands her ground yet again, saying that dogs have a right to the crumbs that fall from the table. Talk about chutzpah!

Now Jesus seems to begin to see and hear her as a real person, not a stereotype. He stops, looks at her, and speaks directly to her for the first time. At this moment, Jesus is stepping outside his culture’s prescribed mindset and behavior toward a Canaanite and begins to perceive and respond to her as a fellow human being. Her assurance and confidence in his ability and willingness helps to break the stereotype Jesus had been taught. The wall goes down, and there is healing as well as reconciliation. 

This story portrays Jesus growing as a person. He is growing out of, and beyond, what he was taught, directly and indirectly, as a child. And it is a face to face encounter that gives him the occasion to do so. 

I concluded that the “sinned” or “didn’t sin” framework of the above-mentioned pastor regarding this story misses the point. As a human being, Jesus needed to continue to grow in maturity throughout his life, as the New Testament itself recognizes (Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8). 

This reinforced a question for me: Is it possible that continued growth and development over the course of our lifetime in a more useful framework for evaluating ourselves and others than that of sin and righteousness? 

(To be continued)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 3

I continue to respond to my Minnesota friend Dan's interest in how I got to where I am today spiritually.

Simply aiming to follow Jesus deconstructed many of the Christian teachings (such as hell) that I had received. Given the difficulty of finding a unified message in the Bible itself (as I recounted in the previous post), I focused on the person of Jesus as the lens through which I would read the rest of Scripture. John 14:9 gave me a reason for this. Jesus is quoted there  as saying, "Those who have seen me have seen the Father."

I ran into trouble pretty quickly in the Old Testament book of Joshua, which tells the story of Israel's conquest of the Promised Land from its Canaanite inhabitants. There the people of God are told by God to slaughter all the men, women, children, and farm animals of the Canaanites. So I said to myself, if someone who has seen Jesus has seen God, and since Jesus therefore shows us what God is really like, it should make sense to imagine Jesus telling the Israelites to commit Joshua's mass slaughter. It doesn't work. Again, Jesus' message and life are all about loving the undeserving, even one's enemies.

In an earlier part of my life, I might have replied to this that God's plan had different stages, and that the slaughter of the Canaanites was God's just judgment on their sins. I would have added that in the same way, God justly condemns to eternal hell those who do not repent and believe. (Yes, writing that now evokes a strong cringe factor.) And that Jesus himself warned people against hell.

That might have worked as a way to retain the link between Jesus, unconditional love, and God. But I couldn't figure out why God couldn't forgive his enemies unless they repented. Didn't that make him just like "the pagans" (Matthew 5:43-48)?

To make things yet more difficult, I was struck one day by Saint Paul's word in 1 Corinthians 13:8 - "Love never ends/fails/perishes." Traditional teaching is that God loves you until you die. At that point, his "righteous wrath" takes over and sends you to endless torment with no possible relief or escape. But then God's love does indeed end/fail/perish.

Following Jesus' example and teaching led me to conclude that there is no hell, despite other passages that teach that there is.

In returning to the U.S. from 20+ years in France, I saw that Evangelicalism had changed. The movement that had been focused on saving souls from hell was now almost entirely silent on that score. Politics and "taking America back for Christ" and "restoring God's moral absolutes" was now the dominant theme. Thus it seemed to me that I wasn't the only one that found hell hard to believe. That was the only way to explain why people's "eternal destiny" could be sacrificed on the altar of today's politics. Deep down, Evangelicals didn’t really believe in hell either. 

More next time on Jesus' unplanned meeting with one of the descendants of those Canaanites that Israel was supposed to destroy....

Monday, July 7, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 2

From the comments on Facebook, I see that this is going to be a bit of a delicate exercise! So I reiterate that my only aim is to tell my own story, not to debate. The ending of the story may please a few people, but will likely disappoint many others. Whatever you may think of my journey, I am still your friend in real life, and hope you will be mine.

The more I studied the Bible, the more I discovered that it did not say what I had been told it said. The work of Evangelical New Testament scholar N.T. (Tom) Wright played a key role here. For example, he shows that the gospel is not the widely used four steps to God (Billy Graham) or four spiritual laws (Campus Crusade, now renamed Cru), but is rather the message that Jesus is Lord. Wright shows that what Paul means by "justification" is not what evangelical theology claims it means.

Moreover, I began to admit that the Bible, and even just the New Testament, does not have just one teaching on any given subject, but many. At one point I counted thirty-some books on Amazon with titles such as four (or five, or three) views of hell, heaven, God's foreknowledge, the Rapture, the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus' death, homosexuality, divorce, etc. In all these books, several differing viewpoints were advocated by authors claiming the Bible as absolute truth and the final authority. But they could not agree on what it said.

What to make of this? Was God incapable of communicating clearly? It became apparent to me that what Evangelicals do is pick out those passages that they agree with and use them to explain away other passages which appeal to advocates of other positions. Historian Mark Noll, in his The Civil War as Theological Crisis shows how both North and South appealed to the Bible to support their position on slavery. The credibility of the Bible to resolve vitally important ethical issues was seriously undermined.

In fact, every reader of the Bible brings to it their own preconceived lenses of concepts and values, and reads the Bible through them. The result is that we cannot see what is actually there in the text if it doesn’t fit with the mental scheme we received from pastors, teachers and authors. 

Evangelical Christians often say that without the Bible there would be no moral absolutes. That may be true, but there are none with the Bible either. Even one of the ten commandments, the one about consecrating the seventh day as the Sabbath day of rest, turned out not to be absolute, since Christians generally worship not on the seventh day but on the first. And the rite of circumcision, which preceded the law of Moses and was given to Abraham as an eternal covenant, was tossed out as worthless (Galatians 6:15) in the New Testament. I would like to say that the Bible teaches love as an absolute. But I cannot, for the Book of Revelation describes God, and even Jesus, as taking vengeance on their enemies, whereas in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to love our enemies.

Here is how I reasoned: If God gave us the Bible and all its details, what is God trying to tell us through all these details and many, many additional challenges the Bible gives us?

My conclusion is that the Bible is calling us to think for ourselves. Just as Adam and Eve in the Genesis story were given no instruction manual on how to cultivate the garden, but had to figure it out for themselves, so we have to figure out for ourselves - together - how to live a good life. That is in fact what I had always been doing as an Evangelical, but without being aware of it. I just assumed that what I had been taught about the Bible was correct, and that those who disagreed were simply rejecting its authority.

Next time, how following Jesus led me to completely rethink the Christianity I had been taught, and that I myself had taught to others as a pastor and missionary.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

How I Changed My Mind - 1

In response to a request from my longtime Minnesota friend Dan, I shall attempt to relate as succinctly as possible how I mutated or evolved from the convinced, sold-out Evangelical Christian I was when Dan knew me in the late 70s and early 80s to a very different perspective today. Like Dan, I was sad when I saw someone else change in a similar way, for I felt they were making the worst possible mistake and going down a path that would lead to destruction. It was inconceivable to me why anyone would choose to go that way.

This simplest and best explanation I can provide is that I read the Bible. Not carelessly, but carefully and attentively. One of my seminary profs had repeatedly emphasized the importance of noting "the phenomena [details] of the text." So I learned Greek and Hebrew as well as I could so as to be able to evaluate the interpretations of others and provide teaching and preaching that would be as truthful, and therefore helpful, as possible.

Somewhere along the way I realized that there is a difference between the reality of God on the one hand, and my idea of God on the other. This is self-evident, since there is also a gap between the reality of any human being, such as my wife, and my idea of that person. And I can spend my entire life trying to match my understanding of Jean (my spouse) or of God to the reality of each, and yet only partially succeed.

As with God and people, so with the Bible. I had a certain idea of the Bible in those days. I believed it was the true and correct one, and I based my life on it - my career, my family life, everything. But there was, in fact, a gap between my idea of the Bible and its reality. The more closely I studied and taught it over the years, the more I discovered that lay outside my concept of the Bible. This made me uncomfortable! So I worked all the harder to make sense out of what was becoming increasingly perplexing.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I would love to be part of a group that functioned like this! But, as Jean points out, it would be very demanding. But think of the good such a team might do!


Posted by Venessa Miemis on Saturday, June 8, 2013 -

This morning I was flipping through the book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace, and came across this great list of principles for how to transcend ego and bring a group to greatness via collaborative thinking. The following passage is from an excerpt titled Thinking together without ego: Collective intelligence as an evolutionary catalyst, by Craig Hamilton and Claire Zammit. Enjoy!

Principles of Evolutionary Culture

1. A Commitment to the Greater Good: All of the individuals in the group must be genuinely committed to discovering and/or achieving the best possible outcome for the whole. Individual or departmental agendas must be set aside. Bringing the group to this high level of commitment may take considerable preparation, but is most easily achieved when all of those involved are on board with the organization’s greater mission, and when there is a trust already established in the leadership’s commitment to fairness.

2. A Commitment to Wholehearted Engagement: Each group member must be committed to fully participate in all group meetings. This means bringing one’s full attention to the matter at hand, leaving all personal concerns at the door. By listening carefully to the contributions of others and putting their own best thinking into the mix, each member contributes to the building of a larger vessel which can carry the group to unforeseen heights of insight.

3. A Culture of Self-Responsibility: All group members must feel personally responsible for the success of the group. Each must feel on a visceral level that the success of the group in achieving its outcomes rests on her shoulders alone. Given our natural tendency to defer responsibility, cultivating this level of ultimate personal responsibility among members of any group is a formidable task. One-on-one work with group members outside the group setting is usually necessary.

4. A Suspension of Assumptions: For the duration of the gathering, group members suspend everything they think they know in order to make room for new insights and understandings to emerge. Practicing what is known in Zen as a “beginner’s mind,” they cultivate an inner and outer environment of profound receptivity and openness, which turns out to be fertile soil for leaps in creativity.

5. Culture of Deep Listening: Group members aspire to listen to one another from a place deeper than intellect. They tune their ears to listen for the deepest threads and the emerging glimmers of novelty in each other’s contributions, and, through their responses, they highlight and draw out those elements to make them transparent to the group.

6. A Commitment to Authenticity: Everyone in the group must be committed to speaking their mind and heart. This is built on the recognition that in order to make the best decision, the group needs everyone’s data. To support this commitment, there must be an explicit agreement within the group that no point of view – no matter how challenging to either the leadership or to the group’s assumptions – will be ridiculed or dismissed without genuine, respectful consideration.

7. A Culture of Risk-Taking: Nothing takes us to the edge of evolution faster than taking meaningful risks. This means speaking on an intuition when we’re not sure we have the words to give voice to it. Or, responding to a gut feeling that something isn’t right, but doing so vulnerably, realizing that it might be oneself that’s not right. It also means being willing to step into new ways of being, even if they feel frightening and unfamiliar. The more risk we are each willing to take, the more profound will be the outcome.

8. A Culture of Empowered Vulnerability: Leading by example, the leadership demonstrates that it is okay to be vulnerable, to take the risk to expose one’s ignorance and uncertainty. The group sees that such vulnerability is actually a position of strength and power because it shows a courageous willingness to step into the most insecure places. This leads to a healthy culture of non-avoidance that is the best inoculation against “groupthink.”

9. A Culture of Constant Resolution: The group strives to maintain a clear and harmonious field of interaction between all participants. This means always striving to clear up any interpersonal tension as soon as possible, so as to build a container of deep harmony and trust among everyone. It is about leaving each interaction “without a trace.” This can sometimes require additional processing outside the group meetings in order to keep group time most efficient.

10. A Commitment to Grow and Evolve: In order for the group to consistently function at an optimal level, all individuals must be committed to staying on their own “evolving edge,” by seeking healthy feedback and taking on new challenges outside their comfort zone. When all of the individuals in a group are actively and enthusiastically engaged in their own evolution, their collective spirit of boundary-breaking infuses the group with vitality and organically keeps the group on its own evolving edge.

The book is available online: Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sermon notes from October 13, 2013, on Christianity AND Evolution:

A Pastoral Approach to Christianity AND Evolution
Mark 4:26-29; John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15-17

It is not by splitting off science and Scripture that we grow, by by bringing them together, by recognizing their essential unity. What God has joined together, let no one separate.
The Bible indicates (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20) that God is made known in the creation. Unless you think this witness to God in nature is deceptive, then the Bible, rightly understood, cannot be inconsistent with the true findings of science.
The same God is at work in science as in the Bible. Therefore there can be no ultimate contradiction between the reality of God (as distinct from our ideas of God) and the reality of the universe. All truth is God's truth.

You should be really interested in this subject!
Not just because Evolution is reshaping Christianity as ancient Greek thought categories give way to modern ones;
Not just because the credibility of the church is at stake, as it was in the case of Galileo;
Not just because we are called to love God with all our minds;
But because you will find yourself in a new way, and find God in a new way that makes sense.

Jesus was both a pastor and a careful observer of nature. He kept using the natural world to illustrate and explain the kingdom of God, God's will being done on earth. He urged his students to pay attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, to the tiny mustard seed, and to crops growing in a field, as in our first text.
He pointed out the mysterious power in the soil that "produces crops all by itself."
He pointed to the growth that shows that God is at work.
He observed the stages by which growth occurs.

Christ is involved in nature in a much larger way .
Christ, named the Logos, was the source of all of nature, all the cosmos. John 1:1-4. Logos was a powerful word that had been used for centuries by both Greek philosophers and Hebrew thinkers to describe the order and reason and harmony apparent in the universe. It referred to the mind of God, to what gave meaning and purpose to the cosmos. Heraclitus was the first to speak of the Logos in this way, in Ephesus, the city of John's gospel, six centuries earlier.
In Paul's circle, it was understood that Christ was the force that holds everything together.  So there is not a chasm between the natural world and the spiritual, but a deep unity and oneness. Colossians 1:15-17.
So the revelation of God in Christ is not limited to Jesus. It extends to every subatomic particle and vibrating energy string, and from there to every molecule and every force and object, living or not, great or small.

Evolution teaches us valuable spiritual principles for our lives that are the teaching of Christ in the creation.
We live in the midst of unceasing change. Jesus called on all to change their hearts and lives because the world was in a different place that it had been.
We need to adapt creatively and constructively. The New Testament writers demonstrate this as they adapt Jesus' teaching to new times and places.
Interacting with others, including people who are different from us, brings forth higher forms of organization, life, and awareness.  New problems and creative solutions will emerge. There is a deep impulse in the universe to move to a higher level.
Personal and kingdom of God growth occurs in stages. Mark 4:26-29.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On teaching the Bible to children

Peter Enns captures my concern for much Sunday School curriculum used in churches. His six-year-old son opened his eyes. Pete took it from there. (His site will give the regular reader a superb mature grasp of Christianity if read regularly.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Moore, Oklahoma, Tornado and God

Events such as this don't sit well with the idea of an almighty God who is also love. Can these two ideas of God be made to fit together?

In a word, no.

Yes, there are verses in the Bible that affirm that God is love (1 John 4:8), and others that affirm that he can do anything (Psalm 115:3).

There are also verses that say that if there is a disaster, God did it, such as Amos 3:6 (in the New Revised Standard Version):

          Does disaster befall a city,
               unless the LORD has done it?

Some resolve the tension by affirming that God does indeed create every disaster that happens, explaining that God does so for his "glory," which is of greater worth than any number of human lives. In other words, they choose to privilege the texts that speak of God's power and control over those which speak of his equal and impartial love for everyone (Matthew 5:45-48).

Why are there contradictory sets of passages on the matter?

Peter Enns and Jared Byas, in Genesis for Ordinary People, point out that the early chapters of Genesis were put together by Israelites a little more than five centuries before Christ to show their Babylonian captors that "Our God is bigger than your God." If Israel had been conquered by Babylon, it was because the Lord had decreed it as a wake-up call for them. They emphasized God's power and control because their identity as God's chosen people was at stake.

The ancients often assumed that God was like a Middle Eastern potentate, seated on his throne, with total and absolute power over his subjects, and who might or might not be swayed by earnest petitions made to him. This was the most obvious way of conceiving of God that they could imagine.

But Jesus redefines what a "Lord" does. He suffers with humanity, and gives himself to them.

Jesus, with his emphasis on God as the Father who loves all his creatures, deconstructed the idea of God as a sovereign monarch. Calling himself the Son of Man, or Human One (in contrast to the beasts who had oppressed the nations), Jesus came as a servant, not as a conqueror or control freak.

Not everyone in the New Testament got was Jesus was saying. The Book of Revelation, for example, reverts to an Old Testament image of God, and even of Jesus, as Conqueror and Destroyer of his enemies rather than Redeemer.

Which leaves us with the challenge to think for ourselves about how best to think of God. I'll go with Jesus' teaching that God is the Father who loves each one, and who suffers with each one.

The God of Jesus neither sent the tornado on Moore, nor did his God decide who would survive and who wouldn't.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why we disagree

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, indicates five criteria which people use to make ethical decisions:

1. Whether a given course of action will harm people or care for them
2. Whether it will effect fairness and reciprocity
3. Whether or not it expresses in-group loyalty
4. Whether it is consistent with respect for authority
5. Whether or not it adheres to the principles of purity and sacredness

Haidt says that our ethical decisions depend on which of these criteria we give the most weight to.

This raises the question of the criteria that Jesus typically used in the choices he made about sabbath observation, diet, response to Roman imperial rule, touching lepers, associating with recognized "sinners," sexual behavior, and so on.

It seems clear that Jesus had low regard for 3 and 5. In Luke 4, for example, he implies that he and his fellow Jews are no more favored by God than other peoples. (His congregation gets really angry about that one.) In Mark 7 he tossed all the dietary laws that his people believed had been given them by God through Moses. Real purity has to do with the heart, our attitudes and intentions. Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

On the other hand, Jesus cared for people by healing them on the sabbath in violation of popular  beliefs about it being sacred, and repeated stories and maxims in which the first wind up last and the last first. So criteria 1 and 2 seem to be highly valued by Jesus.

Criterion 4 is trickier. Jesus critics saw him as disobeying God, whereas he saw them as misunderstanding what the Scriptures really taught. Both Jesus and his opponents claimed to be obeying God, and both quoted Scripture.

Here is a principle: Scripture by itself cannot be appealed to as the ultimate authority, for it itself undermines such a position. To take the Bible seriously means to recognize that it sets itself up as a dialogue of many different voices, not as an authoritative, unique voice. Readers must figure out what it means to respect God's authority.

Jesus redefines authority. He "rules" not by coercion, but by love and persuasion. Since Christians worship God as seen in Jesus, God's authority is to be understood, according to the highest of the teachings of the Bible on the subject, as honoring God's gifting us with the power and right to author life and order and beauty.

So yes, Jesus places a high value on Criterion 4, but radically redefines it so that it doesn't mean what is usually understood.

Which of the five criteria do you emphasize most in your ethical choices?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Last summer at the memorable Wild Goose Festival, Jean and I met Kevin Miller, producer of the movie Hellbound?  Kevin impressed me with his thoughtful and generous spirit and keen interest in the subject of his film.

The question mark is the key to the title. Kevin's full-length documentary includes interviews with the entire spectrum of Christian scholars and leaders on whether the traditional doctrine of hell is true.

I was pleased to learn that it will be showing at the Gateway Theater next to the Ohio State main campus on January 20-23.

Go to to watch the trailer and for additional info.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Yes, it was Talk of the Nation on NPR, not All Things Considered, to which yesterday's post referred. 

The discussion led by Neil Conan raises a number of significant questions that Evangelicals do not always face squarely and with genuine curiosity.

For example, is it really necessary for there to have been an actual original human couple and a "fall" into sin for Christ to be the hope of the world?  Dr. Mohler's particular definition of Christianity hangs on his literal interpretation of Genesis and all of the Bible. But from the beginning of Christianity there have been other understandings of the gospel that do not share his assumption. 

Brian McLaren, in A New Kind of Christianity, explains how Mohler's concept of the gospel comes from his assuming an old Greek philosophical narrative through which he interprets the Bible. That's  where he gets the sharp opposition between natural and supernatural, for example. 

Through careful scientific inquiry, we know much more than the writers of Genesis or the apostle Paul did. Since all truth is God's truth, new knowledge about human origins and the formation of the Bible can only clarify our faith by helping to rid it of mistaken ideas based on ignorance. There is no reason to embrace unnecessary ignorance. 

I'll post links tomorrow to a couple of sites that treat both the gospel and knowledge with appropriate care. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered, there was an excellent discussion on disagreements among Christians on the importance of there having a literal Adam and Eve for the Christian faith to make any sense. Here is the link. I'll post some of my own thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Insight into some Muslim reactions

Our friend Rachel has lived in a Muslim society for years. She knows Muslims as friends and loves them and they love her. She is worth listening to.
If you are interested in understanding others, I am finding Brian McLaren's new book helpful and stimulating. It's called "Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Gospel in 7 Words

The September 5, 2012, issue of Christian Century has an interesting article in which contributors are invited to put the gospel message in 7 words. Check it out at\7words. Here is my proposal, inspired in part by "Matt" in a recent post at JesusCreed: In Christ God puts everything back together. The thinking is that this captures some of the most mature New Teatament thinking as expressed in Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10, as well as with the theme of the restoration of all things (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3:21). My attempt at a seven word summary intends to express how in Christ God puts us back together ourselves, reconciling us with our past, present and future and so making us whole. It also looks to the reconciling and connecting of people in families and communities, and then the connecting of communities with each other, and everyone with the creation in which we live. This in turn suggests the reason for being of churches: participating of God's work of putting everything back together.
Col. 1:20 ...and he reconciled all things to himself through him — whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
Eph. 1:10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.
Matt. 19:28 Jesus said to them, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel."
Acts 3:21 Jesus must remain in heaven until the restoration of all things, about which God spoke long ago through his holy prophets.
Citations from the Common English Bible

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The "slippery slope" may not be so bad after all!

Many of the comments are very interesting.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Love Wins!

This is the title of my Easter season sermon series, borrowed from the book of the same name by Rob Bell. (I added the exclamation mark.) Bell's book is an important one for helping Christians to think through our faith and to explain it well to others. Bell asks good questions and is a competent guide to finding answers. He has come in for a fair amount of criticism from some quarters. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, has written a trenchant critique of Bell's work. Here is a link to Mohler's article, followed by my own response to it. I hope to contribute to a useful discussion and perhaps incite a few folks to read the book, which repays careful study.

Mohler's critique of Love Wins

Al Mohler’s Critique of Love Wins by Rob Bell
by Mark Farmer
May 7, 2011
First, a word on Mohler’s polemical method. There is innuendo from the first to the last mention of Rob Bell to end in Mohler’s article in which he lavishly praises his gifts as a communicator. The implication is that while Bell is a “genius” and “master communicator,” he isn’t really a thinker. He “uses his incredible power of literary skill and communication to unravel the Bible’s message and to cast doubt on its teachings.” In a word, Bell has done noting more than “a public relations job.”
In fact, Love Wins is a very well thought out work that grapples thoroughly and carefully with Scripture throughout. 
Mohler attributes to Bell the motive of kindly desiring to make Christianity more palatable to those who reject it. Bell’s own indication of his motives is that his aim is not to please people in order to sell a message or grow a church. It is to seek the truth. It is to seek the truth in the Bible. How does he do?
Careful students of Scripture approach each text as if reading it for the first time. They know that assuming that one has already grasped the passage in all its complexity and richness blinds one to seeing what is really there. 
When Mohler asserts, “We have read this book before,” he sets himself up for a great fall. Has he really read this book before? Has he really read and understood this book at all?
Mohler accuses Bell of omitting from his gospel major doctrines such as the cross and the resurrection, whereas Bell has an entire chapter devoted to them (and in the book discusses the other doctrines Mohler names as well). 
Mohler’s central assertion is that Rob Bell is simply reintroducing classical American Protestant Liberalism with its denial of the biblical teaching on hell that is rooted in a rejection of biblical authority. 
Here we see the explanation of all that follows. Mohler and Bell move in two different worlds of thought. When Mohler misclassifies Bell as a classic Liberal, he makes a colossal category error. Liberals and Conservatives (theologically speaking) move in the realm of Enlightenment thought characterized by an emphasis on certainty, logical argument, and clarity. Classic theological Liberals sought certainty in rational thought that excluded anything supernatural. Conservatives found certainty in an inerrant Bible. Therefore, for Mohler, “We will either affirm that every word of the Bible is true, trustworthy, and authoritative, or we will create our own Bible according to our own preferences.”
Bell, on the other hand, was educated in and lives and breathes in the realm of postmodernism where ultimate certainty cannot be found. There always remains a veil of mystery, and therefore the supernatural can in no way be ruled out as in Liberalism.  
Mohler’s critique of Bell throughout is that Bell doesn’t use Mohler’s Conservative Enlightenment approach to Scripture. But he mistakenly identifies Bell postmodern approach with Liberalism, and then proceeds to attack Bell as if Bell were a Liberal, which he is not. 
For example, Mohler writes: “H. Richard Niebuhr famously once distilled liberal theology into this sentence: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’”  Not a single one of the points in Niebuhr’s summary is true of Bell’s book.
Love Wins is, in fact, thoroughly and deeply biblical from beginning to end. It just isn’t done in a way that Mohler grasps. 
For example, in chapter 1 Bell describes the certainty with which some Christians claim to know who is in hell and who is not. He then examines a sample of nineteen (19!) passages from the New Testament that one could refer to in answering the question of who goes to hell and who doesn’t. The surprising discovery is that these passages give a variety of answers to the question. 
Taking all of Scripture seriously does not yield simple, clear answers to the question. On the contrary, many questions are raised: Enumerating the teachings of the NT on how to be saved, Bell asks, “is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children?” (Page 15)
Mohler accuses Bell of picking and choosing his Scriptures, but he doesn’t seem to be aware that Bell’s method of writing is to begin from a wide a collection of passages and then to try to make sense of them. For example, in his chapter on Hell, Bell examines every passage in the Bible in which the actual word “hell” occurs. Mohler’s accusation is incomprehensible and makes one seriously doubt that he has read the entire book. 
Mohler accuses Bell of “reducing” the Bible to “story” and then substituting for it another story that Bell “prefers.” This assertion, too, is incomprehensible. It is the “simple gospel” as commonly believed that reduces the rich teaching of the biblical narrative to a list of propositions. And it is not what Bell “prefers” that guides his thinking (no more that is the case with any of us, of course, including Mohler), but rather some pretty rigorous thinking.
Mohler asserts that Bell believes in inclusivism, the teaching that all will go to heaven whether or not they hear of Christ or believe in him. Bell does no such thing, observing that while some Christians have held this position throughout church history, that there are tensions in the biblical passages that we should retain rather than try to force them into one clearly defined teaching. But some of those passages do point to the surprise of people being in heaven that some wouldn’t think would have that possibility, and Bell discusses those biblical passages at length in chapter 6.
Mohler accuses Bell of reviving a focus on God’s love that excludes God’s wrath and judgment, and which reduces God’s love to “mere sentimentality,” as he thinks Liberalism did. He missed Bell’s discussion on how things incompatible with heaven will not be permitted to enter there, and on the consuming fire of God directed at all that is not good. Bell gives the biblical teaching on judgment its full play, even if he doesn’t conclude that the commonly accepted idea of hell gives justice to the biblical teaching.
Rob Bell makes his very strong overall case on the basis of Scripture. Mohler’s surprisingly rebuttal case rests mostly on innuendo and on pointing out ways that Bell’s biblical discussion doesn’t arrive at the same conclusions Mohler has adopted. He fails to engage the substance of Bell’s argument.
To really make a dent in Bell’s case, Mohler needs to address Bell’s biblical argument and to show that his own position rests on a even more solid biblical base than does Bell’s. 
The central question of Love Wins isn’t whether there is a hell, or who is in it, or what it’s like, or how long it lasts, or what its purpose is. The real question Bell poses is, What is God like? In his next to last chapter, he suggests that many Christians don’t really love or deeply trust God because they believe that God would unleash his wrath on a person  they love the moment they die and never relent or allow them to learn and turn and grow and become good. (I suggest that this is also why most Christians don’t really believe in hell the way Mohler says we should. It makes us nobler, fairer, kinder and more forgiving than God himself. George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis’s “mentor,” in his Unspoken Sermons, this this all through even more completely than Bell does.) 
Bell hopes that his book will free Christians to voice the questions they have been secretly harboring and so join in the centuries-old discussion that Christians have been having all along. (He notes that even Martin Luther believed that there was no reason why God couldn’t save people after death!) “I believe the discussion itself is divine.”
Mohler, on the other hand, aims to shut down the conversation by asserting that his idea of God and the gospel and hell is the correct and biblical one.  We are to yield and submit to his authority, which he identifies with the authority of the Bible and of “Orthodoxy” (as defined by whom?). 
Mohler’s authoritarian bent is also revealed by his criticism Bell who, he says, “believes it is his right and duty to determine which story is better than another — which version of Christianity is going to be compelling and attractive to unbelievers.”
Mohler has himself chosen which version of Christianity he believes to be the best. He is a Calvinist (not Arminian), Southern (not Northern/American) Baptist (not Methodist, etc.), Evangelical (not Liberal), Protestant (not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), Christian. I say we all have that same “right and duty” - as Baptists have always believed and taught.
Near the end of his article Mohler has a litany of things which “we dare not...we must never” believe or think or say. Oh yes, we do dare! And, like Martin Luther, we must say what we find in the Scriptures and in our conscience, so help us God. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Discussing the Bible: Seven Rules of Engagement

Wisdom from Rachel Held Evans as she encourages Christians to give each other space to each other to differ in our readings of the Bible. Not yet 30, Rachel is a worthy spokesman for the younger generation as they move beyond some of the blind spots of their elders.

Discussing the Bible: Seven Rules of Engagement

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TIME cover story on Rob Bell's Love Wins

TIME has brought an in-house conversation among Evangelicals onto the public square. I am delighted, not only because I believe that Bell is on the right track, but because the questions he asks are important for everyone. I'll be speaking on the book's themes for several weeks beginning Easter Sunday at The American Baptist Church of Westerville. (Click on the link to the left for details.)

You are invited, whatever your religious or philosophical persuasion or doubts.

Here is the TIME story:

TIME on Rob Bell and Hell

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