More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.

Philosophy

Should Christians avoid philosophy? Is the practice of philosophy one of the dark arts, like sorcery? To answer this question, one might quote Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [or principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” That is, in fact, the only verse in the Bible that uses the word “philosophy,” although Acts 17:18 does mention the philosophers addressed by Paul in Athens.

If philosophy is worldly and evil—part of the human world that is opposed to God’s Truth—then Christians should indeed beware. One cannot walk through mud without getting dirty, and one cannot dabble in worldly affairs without becoming tainted by the sins of the world. Yet many things in the world are good and God-pleasing when used rightly but dangerous and harmful when used wrongly. Water sustains life, but it also drowns. Fire keeps a person warm, provides light, and cooks food, but fire can also destroy property and cause great harm to the human body. Money can be used wisely to serve God and to help one’s neighbors, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Before rejecting all philosophy, a Christian must ask what is meant by philosophy and whether it is all the same. When Paul writes to the Colossians about human tradition and about elemental spirits or principles, is he hinting that some sorts of philosophy are dangerous but that a different philosophy might be beneficial? Is it possible to have a philosophy that is, as Paul says, “according to Christ”?

I maintain that Christians can be philosophers. Christians can read what philosophers have written, can evaluate those writings, and can benefit from those writings without being harmed. Christians can sort through the concepts and the methods of philosophy, approving what is used “according to Christ” while setting aside what comes from merely human tradition or from elemental principles of the world. For the God who created us gave us minds to think, minds to question, minds to explore and learn and grow. In his teaching, Jesus did not hand out answers to every question. Often he arranged that those who heard his teachings had to think about them, consider what he said, and put his words into perspective. God thinks, and people are made in his image. We are meant to think. Philosophy proposes questions and seeks answers. So long as the questions and answers do not separate the thinker from Christ, the Lord cannot disapprove of our philosophical efforts.

We ask many questions. “Why am I here? What should I be doing? What is this world around me? Can I trust my senses and what they tell me about the world, or is there more around me than I can see and hear and feel? How does it work that a series of sounds or marks on a page or screen can transmit thoughts from one mind to another? And what is it that makes some sights and sounds and scents and flavors more beautiful than others?”

We ask questions, and we search for answers. We search in our own minds and experiences. We search the opinions of other people we trust. We search the opinions of recognized experts, and then we think some more. The same apostle Paul who warned us about philosophy also encouraged us to think. He wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That is how the Bible instructs Christians to think. And that, my friends, is philosophy. J.

Speaking Truth on Campus

For much of my life, I have been defending historic and traditional Christianity against those who would mock it or who would replace it with something more timely, more in tune with the present times. When I began this journey, I was graciously given an opportunity to start off on the right foot.

Forty years ago I was a college sophomore, studying at a liberal arts college, majoring in religion. My first two semesters I had taken classes on the Old Testament and New Testament, with the rare opportunity also to study the Apocrypha during our brief January term. Now, in my second year, I finally enrolled in the course that was supposed to be an introduction to religious studies. This class happened to be taught by the Academic Dean of the college, one of his rare appearances in the classroom. His teaching style was more typical of a Masters’ level course, given the amount of reading and writing he expected from us, and the depth of material he assigned. Our textbook, The Philosophy of Religion, contained essays from all the great names in the field, ranging from Plotinus to Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Feuerbach, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Dewey, James, and Wittgenstein. Topics included the definition of religion, the existence of God, and the problem of evil. We were required to write a short paper on each topic and a longer paper on one of the seven topics, with a comprehensive final at the end of the course. The professor, in classroom lectures, informed us that anyone who still believed in the Bible and traditional Christianity must picture God as an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a chair up in the clouds. He offered his own definition of God as “an oblong blur.”

Outside of class one day, I met with the professor and informed him that I was a believer in the Bible and traditional Christianity and that God was not, to me, an old man with a long white beard sitting on a chair in the clouds. We talked for a time about religion and faith, and the professor suggested that I might appreciate some additional reading. He offered a list featuring one of his favorites, Kierkegaard, but also focusing on Karl Barth, whom he thought would appeal to me. (He also revealed his partiality toward Paul Tillich, like Barth an heir to Kierkegaard’s thought.) I found the recommended books in the library, checked them out, and read the suggested essays, about eight hundred pages added to my assignments for his classes and for the others I was taking that semester. I became, at that time, a fan of Kierkegaard, and remain his fan today. Barth, on the other hand, left me cold. Although he used traditional words, he emptied them of meaning, offering nothing worthwhile in place of the traditional and Biblical message they convey.

In the last week before the final exam, the professor began to pull the themes of the class together into one master lecture. (He distributed an outline for us to follow his thoughts.) Religion, he proposed, came from three origins: from human relationships with nature, from human understanding of history, and from human encounters inside our minds. All religious thought and expression, the professor said, came from those three sources. It took more than one class session to summarize the three sources, and then he was prepared to discuss how these three sources of religion handled the topics we had been pursuing all semester.

With his outline in front of me, I saw where the transition occurred from his summary of sources to their response to the topics, and I raised my hand during that transition. When the professor called upon me, I directed his attention to one of the assigned essays read earlier in the course, one from the textbook. Written by Rudolf Otto, from his book The Idea of the Holy, it described God as “Wholly Other,” a reality distinct and different from everything humans encounter in themselves and in the surrounding world. The professor admitted that yes, that assigned essay did take a position beyond the three sources of religion he had described. With that admission, he proceeded to complete his intended lecture.

When we met to take the final exam, we were given blue books (ask your parents or grandparents if you don’t know about exam day blue books) and a mimeographed sheet assigning our essay, due in two hours. The assignment began, “There are three sources of religion…” and told us to choose one of the three sources, describe it, and explain how it responded to one of the topics we had covered. But, following those three points, the assignment continued, “It has been suggested in class that religion can also come from the Wholly Other. Evaluate that possibility from the point of view of the source you have been describing.”

I sensed (correctly) that the professor’s preferred source of religion was human encounter within, a Freudian view that people create religion to replace our parents when they fall short of our idealized concept what parents should be. If your human father is less than perfect, well, then you have a perfect Father in heaven (but you will one day outgrow that Father as well). I described religion coming from that source and proceeded to demonstrate how a religion coming out of that source completely fails to answer the problem of evil. From there, I wrote how a God who is Wholly Other can be the center of a better religion, a religion that provides acceptable answers to the problem of evil in our lives. I knew the risk I was taking, telling the professor that he was wrong, but I had no intention of writing anything different in my blue books.

Even though I disagreed with the professor, I did so in his own language, using the vocabulary and the approaches that were modeled by his lectures and his assigned readings. In the end, I received a strong A for the final exam and earned an A in the class. Of course, I did not convert the professor to traditional Christianity, but I did demonstrate that a traditional, Biblical Christian could function effectively on his academic playing field. That, for me, was part of the joy of a liberal arts education, at least as those existed on college campuses forty years ago. Students could remain true to themselves, defend their beliefs and opinions, and—so long as they followed the academic rules about communication and mutual respect—receive full credit for being capable scholars and thinkers.

That’s how it was then. That’s how it should be today. J.

Reformation, part four

Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he did not wait to receive an answer from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Fifteen centuries later, the followers of Jesus were still debating how to know the truth. Roman Catholic theologians, then and today, taught that God continues to reveal new truth to the leaders of his Church (that is, the Pope), but Martin Luther insisted that God’s truth is unchanging. Everything we need to know about God and about our salvation is clearly stated in the Bible, as written by God’s chosen prophets and apostles. No new revelations are to be expected; no additional truths will be given to the Church.

This applies to religious knowledge, not to all knowledge. Since Luther’s time, scientific study has learned much about God’s creation; no doubt, much more remains to be learned. Even scientific discoveries, though, do not cancel religious truths revealed in the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not reveal new religious truths that contradict the Bible. Even while Luther was protected in the Wartburg castle, prophets arrived in Wittenberg claiming to have new messages from the Holy Spirit. Luther continued to say, as he said at the Diet of Worms, that he would not be convinced of any new religious truth unless it was shown to him from the Bible—not from popes or councils, and not from prophets who claimed new messages from God.

Luther did not mean that every Christian is free to interpret the Bible his or her own way. While placing all other Church authorities under the Bible, Luther also said that the Bible interprets itself. If it is confusing or unclear in one place, God’s people look for another part of the Bible that discusses the same idea, using that to enlighten their minds regarding the reading that is difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is best understood in light of the sixty-five books that precede it. Divisions that hindered the work of the Church in Luther’s lifetime and afterward largely developed from sincere misunderstandings of the Bible, but those sincere misunderstandings sometimes resulted from a determination to put reason and logic, or emotion and feeling, or some human authority, ahead of the Bible when seeking truth.

Ulrich Zwingli was a preacher in Switzerland at the same time as Luther. Zwingli claimed that he received his understanding of Reformation independently from Luther’s writings, although the time lag between Luther’s published work and Zwingli’s proclamations makes historians dubious about Zwingli’s claim. Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg to see if they could work together to oppose the Pope and lead the Church in Reformation. They agreed on eleven important points but disagreed on the final point. Luther insisted that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine served in Holy Communion; Zwingli said that the bread and wine are reminders of Christ’s body and blood. Luther pointed to the words from the Bible, “This is my body”—according to some accounts, he had written them in chalk on the table—saying that “this” and “is” and “body” all had to be taken as true; none of them permitted an interpretation of “reminds” or “represents.” Zwingli disagreed, and the two could not combine forces. Zwingli later died on the battlefield fighting against forces representing the Pope, the Emperor and the Roman Church.

A generation later, John Calvin became Zwingli’s heir in the Reformation. In many ways, Calvin represented a revival of the scholastic vein in Christian theology, seeking to combine reason and faith. Calvin suggested that, when receiving the Lord’s Supper, a Christian is lifted to heaven and enjoys Christ’s presence, while Luther’s heirs replied that Christ comes to earth and is thus really present in the Lord’s Supper. Where Luther had emphasized God’s love and mercy, Calvin emphasized God’s power. Calvin reasoned that, since God is Almighty, all those saved and going to heaven will arrive there because God wants them there, and all those condemned and going to eternal punishment will arrive there because God wants them there. This teaching of “predestination” counters Bible verses that say that God wants all to be saved and wants no one to be lost. Other Christians swung to the opposite approach, teaching that God saves those who want to be saved but condemns those who refuse to be saved. Luther’s teaching—and that of Lutherans since his time, a teaching called “election”—holds to the paradox that no one can be saved without God’s work but all who are lost have rejected God’s work. Calvin’s predestination and the opposite approach—labeled Pelagianism or Arminianism from the names of two advocates of this approach—are both more satisfying to logic and reason than the teaching of election. Luther and Lutherans assert that election is more faithful to Scripture than the more logical suggestions regarding who is saved and who is lost.

Calvin also held that only Christians should govern a Christian land. Luther affirmed that Christians could serve in government, but he did not demand that only Christians could lead; Luther even said that he would prefer a government led by a Muslim who is a competent leader to a government led by a Christian who is incompetent. Luther felt that the government should punish the wrongdoer and protect citizens from danger, but he also said that only the Church can forgive sins and preach the Gospel; the government should not enforce religious beliefs.

Other groups of Christians were distinct from Luther, Calvin, and the Pope. Some called for violent revolution to establish the kingdom of God on earth, while others withdrew from the world and tried to remain pure from worldly concerns, including government. Some went beyond Zwingli, not only saying that bread and wine are merely reminders of Christ’s body and blood, but also that Baptism is merely a reminder of our commitment to God, and therefore only adult believers should be baptized. Politically, some parts of Europe including the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire remained within the Roman Church; northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire held to the teachings of Luther, as did the Scandinavian countries; while parts of Switzerland, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Netherlands favored Calvinism.

King Henry VIII of England at first favored the Roman Church. He wrote an essay against Luther’s teaching, for which the Pope rewarded him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” All of Henry’s heirs, including Elizabeth II, have claimed that title. But a few years later, Henry ran into a practical problem. His wife Catherine, a princess from Spain, had been pregnant six times, but four of the children were stillborn, a fifth died within a month of birth, and only a daughter survived into adulthood. Henry knew he could father healthy sons—he had done so with other women—so he assumed his marriage was cursed. Catherine as a child had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died young, and Henry needed special permission from the Pope to marry his brother’s widow. Now he wanted special permission to divorce his wife and marry a woman who could provide him with a son.

Pope Leo had died by this time, and the new Pope (also from the Medici family) had to make a decision. Pope Clement could agree with Henry and please this king of part of an island at the west end of Europe, or he could agree with the Spanish princess and please her nephew, Charles, who was king of Spain, the Netherlands, and the New World, as well as Austria, and also Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously, Pope Clement decided in favor of Charles’ aunt. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England and broke with the Pope. Negotiators sought to ally Henry’s movement with the Lutherans, but when their theologians learned Henry’s reason for breaking with Rome, they were unwilling to declare an alliance.

Nevertheless, the English Reformation at first followed Lutheran guidelines. Henry—who married six times in all—eventually died and was succeeded by his only son, Edward. Edward was in poor health and died soon afterward. His older sister Mary became queen and tried to lead the Church of England back into the Roman Catholic Church, but she failed. Eventually, she was replaced by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, who guided the Church of England largely on Calvinist paths, although with a broader tolerance for diversity in the Church than was being observed in most European nations.

Meanwhile, under Clement and his successors, the Roman Catholic Church tried to resolve its internal problems. The Council of Trent affirmed penance, indulgences, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope, but the council took steps against misuse of power within the Church. Meanwhile, Ignatius of Loyola provided the Romans with a mind equal to that of Luther and Calvin, Ignatius had been a soldier, but was seriously wounded; during his long recovery, he read the Bible and other Christian works. He wrote Christians works himself, including devotional works still studied today. He also organized another movement like the Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, would become the ground troops defending the Church of Rome in Europe and bringing its teachings wherever European governments were sending explorers and colonists. J.

God bless America

This weekend citizens of the United States of America celebrate the 245th birthday of our country. Plans are already being formed for our Sestercentennial, our 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Any year, the Fourth of July is a national holiday, a day to rejoice in the blessing of being Americans. We rejoice because our celebration commemorates, not a war or battle or military victory, but an idea. Our country was founded on the premise that all people are equal, that we possess human rights, that freedom benefits us all and is something worth celebrating and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

I am not ashamed of the United States of America. It is my country. I thank God for it, and I pray that God would continue to bless it. The USA is not perfect. Many times, we have fallen short of our goal of providing liberty and justice to all people. We cannot erase the mistakes of the past, but we can hold to our national principles and work for a better future. We learn how to work together as a nation, even though at times we disagree with one another. The America I love is based on certain truths. They may not be self-evident to all, although Thomas Jefferson once wrote that they are. But the truths of freedom, equality, and justice come from God, and these truths apply to all people, not just to some people.

Our human rights—call them life, liberty, and private property—are God-given rights. They do not come from our government. Instead, our government exists to protect and preserve those rights. If our government fails to do that fundamental job—if it ignores those rights or tries to rob us of those rights—we have an additional right to alter or replace that government. If each of us fought for our own personal rights, protecting our lives and liberty and property from one another, chaos would result. Therefore, we join together and respect a government that defends us from enemies abroad and enemies at home, from nations that oppose our freedom and criminals that would cheat us of what is ours. In defending our human rights, the government is consistent with God’s Ten Commandments, which protect (among other things) our lives, our marriages, our personal property, and our reputations from the sins of others.

In addition to protecting and defending these rights, the government also provides for the general welfare of its citizens. By common agreement of the majority, the government provides (on its own or with the cooperation of private organizations) highways and other transportation, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation facilities. Citizens willingly surrender land to build these facilities and tax dollars to operate them; then, citizens are free to use them or not use them. If the way these facilities are operated begins to infringe upon our rights as citizens, we are free (and obliged) to alter them or replace them. We elect leaders and advise those leaders about how many government services we require or desire and how much freedom and property we are willing to surrender for their existence. Although citizens disagree with one another about public services and about their funding, we continue to work together to form a functioning society, compromising when we must and convincing others when we can, doing what is best for ourselves and for our neighbors (never thinking only of ourselves and our individual wants and needs).

A truly just society protects and defends all human lives. Care for the young, the elderly, the sick, and the weak begins in the family. It extends into the community, especially into faith-based communities. The government might connect needy people with resources in their community; it might even supplement the help available some communities to protect and defend lives. As the government also seeks to protect and balance other human rights, a truly just government never overlooks the most basic human right, which is the right to life. When a child is born to parents who do not want him or her, or who are unable to care for him or her, connections can and should be made with families or other institutions who will provide that child with the care and upbringing he or she needs.

A truly just society keeps a watchful eye on medications and on other substances that may be abused to the harm of its members and their neighbors. The government does not prohibit substances that can be used safely, but it regulates the use of dangerous prescriptions, striving to ensure that they are prescribed and taken properly and safely. It prohibits all substances that cannot be used, even in moderate doses, without harm to the user. The government penalizes people who knowingly sell and distribute dangerous substances to the harm of others. At the same time, it connects addicts and other damaged persons with the care they need to recover from their problems and overcome their addictions. Meanwhile, moderate and appropriate use of those substances that can be consumed safely is not prohibited or penalized. Lawmakers must keep themselves informed of the latest research regarding medicines and other dangerous substances.

A truly just society protects its citizens from criminals bearing dangerous weapons without restricting the right of law-abiding people to own weapons. Once again, law-makers will need to be informed about what weapons are available, what persons are shown to be at high risk for access to such weapons, and what provisions can be made for care and treatment of those who might be dangerous due to poor health rather than due to criminal intent. No doubt compromises will need to be reached between the extremes of comprehensive gun control and unlimited access to weapons. These compromises might be accomplished on a regional basis rather than at a national level.

A truly just society protects and defends marriages, which are best defined as one man and one woman who have made a lifetime commitment to love and support and honor each other. Along the way, a government might help to preserve friendships without judging the quality of those friendships or interfering with their privacy. Where marriages do not exist, friends should be allowed to share their property with one another, to make friends their heirs, and to give friends legal rights of visitation while sick, representation in financial matters, and the like. Sexuality is—and should remain—a private matter, not a concern of the government. Sexual interests and preferences should not be material for public discussion and debate. Even while defending freedom of speech and expression, governments should be allowed (on a local level) to limit and restrict discussion and description of matters that are considered private and personal, offensive, or obscene. Families, businesses, and other community organizations should be allowed to block broadcasts and transmissions into their property of material that violate their private and personal values.

I cannot imagine, let alone defend, a society that encourages and perpetuates confusion about gender. The vast majority of people are born with information that they are either male or female recorded in their chromosomes contained in every cell of their bodies. They are born with organs that match that chromosomal information. Rather than permitting or encouraging people to attempt expensive surgery, hormonal treatment, and therapy to change their gender, society should help people to accept and embrace the genders with which they were born. The tiny percentage of people born with a birth defect causing genuine confusion deserves medical and therapeutic help. The rest of us accept the bodies we were given and help others to do the same. People before, during, and shortly after puberty already face enough challenges, including confusion about who they are as male or female. Permitting, even encouraging, them to contemplate changing their gender at such a time only magnifies trouble and confusion; it solves nothing.

A truly just society allows successful entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but a truly just society also does not force other citizens to remain trapped in poverty. Taxes that support the work of the government remain fair for all people, not robbing the rich to give to the poor, nor lining the pockets of government bureaucrats. Assistance to the poor begins in the family and community but is supplemented by government assistance when needed. Such assistance may include temporary provision of food and shelter, but it also includes education and job training, access to information about available jobs, and community renewal. Employers are encouraged through government incentives to create jobs, to train and educate workers, and to provide those workers with benefits beyond their hourly salary. Help that flows from the centralized government is applied at a local level by resident citizens who perceive how best to assist their neighbors and improve the quality of life for their city, neighborhood, and the surrounding area.

A truly just society places few limits on the freedom of speech and expression. Deliberately dangerous and harmful communication is regulated, as are deliberate and harmful slander, libel, and other lies. Beyond these few limitations, governments allow communities to set and enforce their own standards of speech and public discourse. People can ignore messages that are obscene, hateful, or otherwise provocative. Open discussion of political matters is encouraged, not limited or censored. Artists of every kind are allowed to practice their arts, as their communities recognize and reward talent while ignoring and marginalizing poor and inappropriate expressions described as art. Companies that distribute individual expressions internationally are not permitted to censor their contributors on the grounds of political opinion or other controversial standards. Such companies have the right to limit obscenity, incitement to violence, or deliberate falsehoods, but beyond such limitations their control over the work of their customers is restricted.

A truly just society values all its members. Therefore, it celebrates all the cultures represented among its members. Each member of such a society is encouraged to have pride in his or her cultural background, to celebrate that background, and (as appropriate) to share the treasures of that background with others. Schools, libraries, and museums help to teach members of the community about its diverse cultures and their customs. Laws prohibit discrimination against any persons on the grounds of their cultural background, including their appearance and their native language or dialect. No culture is treated as better than any other; no culture is treated as worse than any other. Historic inequities are handled by enforcing anti-discrimination laws and by providing equal opportunity to all persons, beginning with quality education made available to all children in every community. Injustices of the past are acknowledged, but they are not cast as weapons to create or perpetuate war between two or more cultures.

The United States of America can be a truly just society. We began an experiment respecting and preserving human rights nearly 250 years ago. We have made regular strides in the expansion of human rights since that beginning. We have not arrived at our goal yet, nor will we do so completely while living in an imperfect world. But, as one of our Presidents has said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” We should love our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should continue to work together to preserve what is good in our country and to cure whatever ails in our country. We need citizens and leaders who love and respect all that America stands for, citizens and leaders who honor all that America works to achieve. Together, we can take what is good, and we can make it even better. God bless each of you, and God bless America. J.

The history of religion and the Axial Age

One cannot study human history without noticing and learning about the religious beliefs and practices of various people. Religion has been—and remains—a strong motivation for the actions of many people. Sometimes religious differences have led to wars within a group of people or between groups of people. More often, religion has motivated beneficial actions within a group of people or between groups of people.

Scholars who study religion fall into two groups. The first group believes that religious truth is permanent and unchanging. It was known by the earliest people and has been passed down intact from generation to generation; it still exists in the world today. But many people have wandered from the truth. They have added beliefs and practices that differ from the truth, resulting in today’s diverse religious beliefs and practices. Traditional (or conservative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all accept this concept of a single religious truth, even as they disagree about the content of that truth. I suspect that many traditional (or conservative) Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of other religions have a similar confidence in the existence of one fundamental set of truths.

The second group of scholars believes and teaches that religion evolves. They say that primitive people, having no science, assumed that things they could not explain were caused by spirits living in the observable world. Early religious practices focused on living in harmony with those spirits, cooperating with them, gaining their help when needed, and placating them when they were angered. Over time, according to these scholars, some of these spirits (along with some revered human ancestors) became regarded as gods. That stage of religious belief is called polytheism, belief in many gods. Many generations later, some gods were viewed as more powerful than others, until belief centered around a single central god—often the national god of a powerful nation that subdued its neighbors and built an empire. From that stage, the next step was monotheism—belief in one god, denying the reality of the other gods that once were trusted and obeyed. Following the introduction of monotheism came deism: deists acknowledge a creator god who established the rules of nature and of moral behavior, but the god of deism is no longer involved in the world. That god can be compared to a watchmaker who assembles a watch, winds it, and then steps away. From deism, it is a short step to atheism—the claim that there is no god—or to agnosticism—the claim that no one knows whether a god exists.

It should be noted that, among atheists and agnostics, some are militant and some are quiescent. Militant atheists boldly assert that no god exists, and the battle against all believers who proclaim the existence of a god or of gods. Quiescent atheists also believe in no god, but they do not try to convert anyone else to their belief. Quiescent atheists are content to continue in their lack of belief but do not care what other people say or do about their god or gods. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. Quiescent agnostics are not sure if god exists, but they are content to remain quietly in their uncertainty. They do not challenge the conviction of believers or of unbelievers. Militant agnostics say that no one knows if god exists. They equally challenge the convictions of believers and atheists, insisting that all of us are guessing about religious truth, that no one on earth really knows for sure about god.

Both groups of scholars agree that a revolution in religious thought occurred in the world roughly twenty-five centuries ago. Dubbed the Axial Age, this time marked the beginning of several religious movements, including Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy. Scholars have also sought information about the Axial Age in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). Ezra and Nehemiah lived during the Axial Age, as did the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some scholars claim to find evidence of the Axial Age in other Biblical books traditionally regarded as older, such as the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Axial Age beliefs began, for the most part, in Iron Age cultures long established in the river valleys of Asia, from China to Mesopotamia. Although expressed in a variety of ways in different cultures, they bear a common theme of individuality, of looking within one’s self to find truth rather than seeking it in the surrounding world. These pursuits are credited with stimulating Christianity and Islam in later generations, as well as helping to generate European science and philosophy, beginning in Greece. The Axial Age can be described as a human revolution equivalent to the Neolithic Revolution of ancient times (when people stopped hunting and gathering food and began raising it for themselves in settled areas) and to the Scientific and Industrial revolutions of modern Europe.

Vedic Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan bear traces of the religious beliefs that prevailed before the Axial Age. So do indigenous religions still followed by small groups of people in Asia, Africa, the southern Pacific, and Native American settlements in the Americas. One common theme among the many diverse indigenous religions (at least in Africa and the Pacific islands) is awareness of a powerful creator god who, like the deist god, created the world and established its rules, but is no longer involved in the world. The religious practices in those indigenous groups involve honoring and seeking the approval of divine beings that are less than all-powerful. Often each of those beings has power in only a single area—planting, harvesting, human health, childbirth, weather, and so on. Christian and Muslim missionaries often win converts among such groups by promising to “eliminate the middle-men,” so to speak. They offer knowledge of the creator god and access to that god—Christians through Jesus Christ and the Gospel, Muslims through the Qur’an.

In coming days I will offer a more detailed study of those Axial Age movements that profoundly shaped the way religious people think and act today. J.

David Scaer: “All Theology is Christology”

In yesterday’s review of David Scaer’s memoirs, I deliberately omitted a significant event from Dr. Scaer’s career. One of Scaer’s colleagues at the seminary accused Dr. Scaer of heresy, objecting that the public statement by Doctor Scaer that “all theology is Christology” denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The faculty of the seminary met, considered Scaer’s statement and the charge against him, allowed him to explain the meaning of statement, and cleared Scaer of any heretical statements or beliefs.

An unfortunate legacy of the “battle for the Bible”—in which professors, students, and congregations left the Missouri Synod in protest over the synod’s defense of Biblical inerrancy—was that some professors and students acted as if they had a continuing responsibility to oversee one another, to maintain the purity of the teaching in the synod’s schools, and to drive out any individual who was guilty of teaching false doctrine. Christians should prefer truth to error, of course. When one Christian is in error, his or her fellow Christians should gently correct that Christian, using the Word of God as the standard by which all teachings are judged. A Christian who stubbornly refuses correction and holds to false teachings that contradict the Bible should not be allowed to teach others. But the pursuit and defense of truth must always be done with love for God and love for our neighbors. When the apparatus for correcting error is used as a weapon for personal attacks, the entire Church suffers.

David Scaer earned his doctorate in theology; his colleague had an honorary doctorate from a school in Brazil. David Scaer was a full professor at the seminary and served as academic dean; his colleague was adjunct faculty whose professional career offered the appearance of expertise in Christian stewardship. The walk-out of 1974 left many positions to be filled in the seminary faculties, and not all those called to teach were qualified for their roles. Scaer deals with the event evenhandedly in his memoirs. Students on campus at the time were aware that this colleague envied Scaer’s standing with the students. Because this colleague was unequipped to debate Dr. Scaer in theology (and because this colleague was totally lacking in humor and could not comprehend Scaer’s use of humor) he chose instead to file charges of heresy against Scaer. Under the circumstances, the charges had to be treated seriously.

“All theology is Christology.” Scaer did not intend to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, that the one God is three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, Scaer was teaching that the Father and the Holy Spirit are known in this world only through Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Anyone who insists that God can be known as Father without acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God and the world’s Savior is contradicting the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus as God’s Son and humanity’s Savior. Anyone who claims to be led by the Spirit of God but denies Jesus Christ is being led by another spirit and not by the Holy Spirit.

All theology is Christology. People in this world know the Father and the Spirit only through their knowledge of Jesus Christ and through their faith in Him. No teaching about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit can be understood apart from knowledge of God through Christ. Without Jesus, people in this world have no accurate or reliable information about God.

The effort of Dr. Scaer’s colleague to label Scaer a heretic was one symptom of the malaise that existed on the seminary campus in those years. I mentioned yesterday the student joke about hidden microphones in the salt and pepper shakers of the cafeteria. That bit of humor addressed a grim reality. Students took notes in class, not to learn from their professors, but to report to others what the professors were saying. Casual conversations in dormitory lounges were reported to the Dean of Students. Church issues that extended beyond denominational lines became battle grounds on campus, as labels such as “Pietism,” “Church Growth,” and “Contemporary Worship” could darken the reputation of anyone involved with the school. Seminary President Robert Preus was not personally to blame for the poisonous climate; if anything, he deliberately brought in teachers of varying points of view. Sometimes those teachers became Preus’ most strident opposition. Some of the Church’s most promising thinkers and theologians may have fallen through the cracks at the seminary precisely because of these kinds of confrontations.

Reading Dr. Scaer’s memoirs has brought back many memories, and for that I am not thankful. But I do appreciate Scaer’s instruction, his emphasis on clear thinking and academic excellence in pursuit of serving the Truth and the Church that belongs to Jesus Christ. Spiritual battles are not all cut and dried, with a clear right side and a clear wrong side. They are generally more complicated than that. But when Christ is held at the center, his Light still prevails, and the darkness cannot overcome it. J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

Yes and no

“Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ [Let your yes be yes and your no be no]; anything more than this comes from evil [or from the evil one]” (Matthew 5:37)

If we could follow this simple rule from Jesus, we would rapidly develop reputations as honest, reliable, and trustworthy people. If every time we said “yes” it meant yes, and if every time we said “no” it meant no, people would understand us and would rely on our words. If we never said “yes” or “no” unless we knew that was what we meant—if we remained determined to hold to our answer and our promise—then no one would need to place us under oath. They would trust every word we said.

Why are our answers unsteady and unreliable? Sometimes we are afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” We risk a “yes” or a “no” even though we don’t know the answer or aren’t completely convinced. Sometimes we say things we wish were true, even though they are not true. Sometimes we say things we know other people want to hear, even if they are not true.

Because we live in a sinful world, we can imagine situations in which a lie is more ethical than the truth. In extreme cases, telling a lie might save a life. In more everyday cases, telling a lie might keep another person from feeling sad. The Bible does not say “Do not lie” with the same severity as when it says “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery.” Still the witness of Scripture favors honesty over deception.  Scripture favors truth rather than falsehood. Jesus says, “I am the Truth.” He is the pattern we are meant to imitate. The devil, the evil one, Jesus identifies as the father of lies.

So we can be like Jesus, we want our words to be honest and reliable. We want to mean yes whenever we say “yes,” and we want to mean no whenever we say “no.” When the world tries to back us into lying, we prefer to stay silent as Jesus remained silent while he was accused. When we speak the truth, we want that truth to be helpful to others, not hurtful; we want to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) rather than using the truth as a weapon to harm others.

We do not live up to these standards. We often fail to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” When we do not measure up to God’s standards, we still possess his blessings of love, mercy, and forgiveness. His love is true and dependable. When he promises to forgive us our sins, his “yes” always means yes. J.

Truth and analogy

Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.

When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.

But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).

The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.

There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.

Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.

We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.