Money, Sex, God

I hit the couch to take my Saturday afternoon nap.  I like background noise while I nap, so I turned on the TV.  My wife had left the TV on the Hallmark Channel, which was showing some movie about yet another beautiful-yet-inexplicably-single woman who unknowingly begins a romantic relationship with the prince of some obscure European country.  I couldn’t nap to that, so I switched channels.  When I did, I came across a movie called Big Game.  I had never heard of it before, but it turned about to be an action/thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as the president of the U.S. who gets jettisoned out of Air Force 1 during a terrorist attack and lands in the wilderness of Finland (I think).

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The movie was actually decent, and it kept me from napping for awhile.  What eventually caught my attention, though, was not the action or the characters.  It was this line, which a CIA analyst (or some such thing) says after being asked how terrorists could have penetrated security by turning a Secret Service agent:

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Now I don’t have much comment on the money or sex part of that equation.  I do have a comment about the God part.  Clearly the analyst was referring to notion that someone’s God or god inspires them to do terrible things.  It is not an uncommon suggestion.  It is not entirely untruthful, either; we know for a fact that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do terrible things.

it is not the whole story, though.  While it is true that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do terrible things, it is equally true that some people’s understanding of God/god has inspired them to do wonderful things.

I could make a list of such people (William Wilberforce would probably top that list, followed by thousands of others), but I really don’t have to do so.  Instead of offering such a list to prove my point, I can offer myself.  What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that my understanding of God (that is, the God of the Bible, the Father of Jesus Christ as revealed by Jesus Christ) has inspired me to do wonderful things and continues to inspire me to do wonderful things.  In fact, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would be my lack of belief in (and/or concern about) God that would inspire or at least allow me to do terrible things.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that apart from my belief in God I would be like this guy:

That’s right.  I’d kill everyone who looked at me cockeyed.  Or I’d at least give them a dirty look, a harsh word, or a little passive aggression.  I’d be a terrible person apart from God.  Not only so, I see no reason not to be a terrible person apart from God.  If there is no God (which is what these arguments are really about; when we’re in this neighborhood, which not talking, “Which God?” but “God or not?”, in which case there are only two alternatives: either there is some spiritual side of life or there is nothing but physical matter), there is no reason to treat people decently.  After all, if “no God” is the reality, then all people are just accidents of random chance, each no more important than algae or weeds or rats or any other vermin I eliminate without mercy when they annoy me.

I don’t treat people that way, though.  I’m not that man.  And I do not/am not because of my belief in God and my consequent belief that all people are created in the image of God and my even more consequent belief that how I treat people matters, that is, that I can treat people in the righteous way God/Jesus did (understand here my motivation is not that God will punish me in some way if I mistreat people but that God has invited me to be like Him in my treatment of people).  The fact of the matter is that I am a far better and superior person by any standard because of my belief in God.  People can offer all the quips they want.  They can hit me with all the sarcasm they want.  They can lay out all the counterarguments they like.  But they can’t deny this one truth which I know far better than them: God has made me a better person.  Period.

At the very least, then, belief in God is a mixed bag as far as actions go.  Has it led some people to do terrible things.  Sure.  Those people most definitely had a wrong understanding of God, of course, but it is nonetheless true that their belief led them to horrendous action.  It is also and equally true, though, (and perhaps more true, as there are certainly more people who have loved their neighbor because of God than there are those who have blown up their neighbor because of God) that it has led me and millions like me to do wonderful things.  So belief in God at the least produces both things.  And since it does, since it undeniably produces wonderful things as well as bad, it can’t be completely dismissed by a little dig in a movie or any other, similar attack.

BTW: Big Game continued to play as I wrote this post.  Yes, I didn’t get the nap I wanted; I wrote instead.  As I wrote, I heard the same CIA analyst say this:

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So I guess it wasn’t God after all.

In God We Trust

I was pulling into the USA Gas Station at the end of Oak Park the other day.  I like that gas station because the gas there is cheaper than anywhere else, so I fill up there whenever I get the chance.  As I was pulling in this day, I noticed some sort of moving truck parked on the adjacent side street.  It was a truck from a local business, not a national one.  And at the bottom, the local owners had printed the motto, “In God We Trust”.

“Amen,” I said as I completed my turn and pulled to a stop at the first open pump.

But as I stepped out of my car, I realized that my amen was more automatic than authentic.  I had said amen because I recognized the owners of that truck to be “on my team”, not because I recognized the truth of the actual statement.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever recognized the truth of the statement “In God we trust”.  That statement is more a motto, as I called it above.  Really, it is more like a slogan or even a jingle.  At least it is for me.  I’ve heard it so many times that I no longer really hear it, no longer consider what it is saying, what it is encouraging me to do, what it is establishing as right or correct or wise to do.

As I reflected upon that while pumping my gas, I realized that this statement was really saying something profound, that it was encouraging me to is something I should do, that what it is establishing as right and correct and wise and really right and correct and wise indeed.

What I realized is that saying “In God we trust” (or, to make it more individual, “in God I trust”) is more than just pledging fidelity to a team.  What I realized is that it is a confession of a way of life, a healthy way of life.  Trust is basically the same thing as belief.  It is used 36 times in the NIV, and almost every time it is translating the Greek word pisteuo, which is believe or have faith or some variation of that idea.

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As I am not a translator and not incredibly skilled at Greek, I’m not sure why it is translated as trust is these passages rather than believe, which is far more common.  My guess, though, is that the passages in which it is translated trust are a little more intensive some of the others.  My guess is that the belief/faith in these passages is more than just an intellectual assent to something but a more committed reliance upon it.  I once heard it defined in this way: “faith is thinking a guy can walk across a high wire pushing a wheelbarrow; trust is getting in the wheelbarrow”.

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What I am discovering at this stage in my life is that this “getting in the wheelbarrow” is not just what trust is but that it is also an essential element of living life correctly.  The fact of the matter is that I have to get into the wheelbarrow quite often whether I want to or not.  The fact of the matter is that my path involves quite a few hire wires.  The only way across these hire wires (the only healthy way, as I said before, the only way that doesn’t result in devastating anxiety) is this trust in the one who is pushing the wheelbarrow over these high wires, this “trust in God”, this commitment, this reliance, this belief that He can get me over the hire wire and will get me over the high wire.

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So it is a motto.  It is a good motto, and shouldn’t stop being a motto.  It is a signifier of which team you on are, too.  But even more than those, it is a way to live.  It is again the right, correct, and wise way to live.  It is the way I am trying to live.  And I invite you to try along with me.

 

For The Gods They Made

One of my buddies recently asked me if I knew the song “Sympathy for the Devil”.

“I know of it,” I said.

What I meant was that I was aware of the song.  I heard Stephen King talk about it repeatedly in his book Dreamcatcher.  I think I also heard the “woo-woo” part of the song somewhere and could recognize it if I heard it again.  I even knew what the song was about; I knew the song was a monologue given by Satan himself.  But I don’t think I had ever heard it all the way through.

A few hours later, I saw this commercial:

There is was again.  “Sympathy For The Devil”.  Apparently this version was by Motorhead rather than The Rolling Stones, but it is the same song.

With that, my interest was piqued, and I decided to investigate.  I didn’t want to listen to the song; I never was a Stones guy.  But I wanted to understand it.  So I looked up the lyrics and read them.  And I was surprised to find this:

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People fighting “for the Gods they made”.  That’s what I found.  That’s what the lyrics say.

And I am fairly sure that line is a slam against people of faith.  Maybe not against all people of faith; I like to be fair, and it is fair to admit that this line is not that broad, that it could just refer to some people of faith.  It is still a slam, though.  People of faith (whether just some or all) are being critiqued here.  Beyond that, it is a slam I have heard before.  It uses the “religion causes violence” idea that is so popular among the critics of my way of life, but it adds the additional twist that this violence is extra-unfounded because the basis for it is invented or imaginary.  People of faith aren’t just being violent, this line/slam says; they are being violent for what any “rational” person would immediately identify as no good reason or even no reason at all.

Now I don’t know who wrote that line, and I don’t know why.  I imagine whoever it was thought they were being very clever.  I imagine they thought they had really found a nail they could drive into faith’s coffin.  Maybe that’s not true and maybe that’s not fair, but it is what I imagine.

What I know, though, is that this is not the case at all.  The idea suggested by this line, the idea that faith is wrong/wrong-headed to start such reason-less fights, is neither clever nor a nail in the coffin of faith.  It is neither of these things because it is not unique to faith/people of faith.  Many people, quite likely all people, are doing what this song describes whether they know it or not.  Just about everybody in our society, if not actually everybody, is being violent for no reason.

Let me explain what I mean.  The existence of God and/or gods and/or a spiritual side of existence is an all or nothing reality.  He/They/It either exist or not.  There is no gray area here.  There is no room for gray area.  If there is no God/gods/spiritual, then the materialist worldview I have often written against here is true.  If there is no God/gods/spiritual, there there is nothing to life but physical matter.  Not only is God/Bible/Church not real and thus meaningless, but so are other non-physical ideas and ideals like love, tolerance, acceptance, equality, fairness, rights, etc.

H.L. Mencken understood this to some extent.  He defined love in this way:

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If the materialist worldview is correct, then not only is love a delusion, but so is every other abstract, non-physical notion.  If the materialist worldview is correct, then the only thing that is real is “nature red in tooth and claw”.  If the materialist worldview is correct, then might most certainly makes right and the survival of the fittest is the only ideal.

Few people, though, whether materialist or not, are living that way.  Many if not most people are fighting over abstract ideas: racism, sexism,  bullying, and others of that kind.  I am with them in those fights (at least ideologically; I’m not with them in the caustic way they carry out these fights, but I agree with their ideas; those ideas contradict the way of my faith).  But what these people might be failing to realize as they fight so vigorously is that these things are as invented as the “Gods” of The Rolling Stones’ song are.  They are as contrived as any deity.  And any fights based on them are thus just as reason-less and just as ridiculous.

This is the reality if the materialist worldview is the correct understanding of reality:  all of us are as ridiculous as the people of faith The Stones are critiquing.  All of us are being violent for no good reason.

But if the materialist worldview is not the correct understanding or reality…well, that means there is a spiritual side of life, doesn’t it?  That means at least one of the Gods we’ve being fight over is real, at least one of these Gods isn’t invented.  And if that is true, we ought to (non-violently, of course) try to figure out which one it is.

Never Have To Beg

“Remember, Daddy: you promised me a Freeze!”

That was what my daughter said to me this afternoon.  We were pulling into Taco Bell, our traditional Saturday lunch spot.  She had missed out on a chance to get a Yoo-Hoo earlier, so I compensated by promising her a Freeze at the Bell.

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A couple hours later, we were there and she was reminding me of my earlier promise.  And reminding me.  And reminding me.

After the third reminder, which came less than 30 seconds after the first, I realized that I was experiencing one of those proverbial “teaching moments”, and I determined to seize it.

“Listen to me, hun,” I said as we stood in the Bell parking lot, taking both her hands in mine and keeping my voice as even as possible so she would understand I was intense but not angry, “I do remember my promise to you.  And even if I didn’t, I would only need a small reminder.  You don’t ever have to beg me for anything.  I am happy to give you anything you need.”

That (more or less; I think I was a little more eloquent at the time) was what I said to her in that instant.  And I did so not because I wanted her to know something about me.  I did so because I wanted her to know something about God.  I wanted her to realize that she doesn’t have to beg God for anything, doesn’t have to plead with God for anything, doesn’t have to beseech God for anything, doesn’t need to bang on the door of Heaven for anything, doesn’t need to be anxious for anything or afraid she won’t get something.  She doesn’t need to do that because God, like me but to an infinitely greater degree, is happy to give her what she needs.

This is something I have recently begun to realize.  I’ve been routinely praying to God for twenty-five years, a quarter of a century.  I’ve been sporadically praying to God longer than that.  And for most of those years, my prayers have had a desperation to them.  I have pleaded with God, tried to bargain with God, persuade God, reason with God, make my point, etc. ad infinitum.  It suddenly dawned on my sometime this year, though, that all this is unnecessary.  If God is good (which the Bible repeatedly says His is and which nature strongly suggests), He will simply supply these things.  He will supply them not because I have successfully begged them out of Him.  No, He will supply them because He is a supplier.

Now I know you might question this a little.  After all, doesn’t the Scripture talk about “wrestling in prayer”?  Yes, it certainly does.  Paul uses that phrase in Colossians 4, and Jacob demonstrates the idea in Genesis 32.

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Paul doesn’t say what Epaphras was wrestling in his prayers, though.  It may well be that he wasn’t wrestling with God (which is how I imagine many interpret this verse) but rather with those spiritual forces who oppose the will of God.  And, yes, Jacob wrestled with God until he was blessed, but I’m not sure the Scripture says that his wrestling was what really got him blessed.

No, I think God gives because God is a giver.  I think God gives apart from begging and desperation.  I think God is exactly like the father in Luke 15 who told his eldest son:

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That son didn’t need to beg.  He did need to ask (which is how families work but apparently not what he was doing).  But he didn’t need to beg.  He didn’t need to get desperate or fear.  My daughter doesn’t, either.  Nor do we.

The Gall To Ask

I was the first of my high school friends to discover REM.  I think I was the only one to really be interested in REM, in fact, but I was definitely the first.  I thought that was really special, particularly when I saw something on MTV which said REM was a favorite among college students.  “See,” I thought, “I listen to music at a college level.”

Toward the end of my high school career, REM released a song called “Man On The Moon”.

This song would continue to get radio time throughout my college career.  It always disturbed me, particularly during my college years.  I think some of that disturbance is that I felt this song was different from the REM songs I had loved before.  But I know some of it is due to the line “Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”.

That line is obviously a reference to Charles Darwin of On The Origin of Species fame, and the “asking” there is obviously Darwin’s willness to question the generally-accepted idea of divine creation.  This willingness is called “gall”, which amounts to brave or courageous or any number of idealistic things.

And I don’t suppose that really a problem.  I don’t want to be a knee-jerk theist, hating everything which is not on my side or my team.  I do wonder, though, why one person’s willingness to question generally-accepted ideas is called gall and viewed idealistically while another person’s willing to question generally-accepted ideas is regarded as stupidity or wickedness.

Let me give you an example of the latter which I recently found in Lee Strobel’s The Case For Miracles:

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Strobel records the “theater” Hitchens performed, theater based on Hitchens’ apparent belief that no one could question science (or, more accurately, the materialistic worldview).  I found something similar in the movie Prometheus (which I went to see at the very first showing the Thursday night of its release):

The scientist (whose name I have forgotten but who doesn’t act all that scientific later in  the film when he taunts the obviously dangerous alien creature he encounters) clearly doesn’t think much about people discounting three centuries of Darwinism.  He apparently didn’t have a problem with Darwin and all his followers discounting millennia of creationism.

I suppose something on a much smaller scale happened when I went with my daughter’s kindergarten class on a field trip to the nearby Lawrence Hall of Science.  As we stood in the parking lot of the hall, one of the other father’s, a Russian expatriate, gestured at the building and said to me in broken English, “I thought you no like this.”

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The fact of the matter is that I don’t have any problem with science.  i don’t gravitate toward it much; it was never my favorite subject in high school and it still doesn’t do much for me today; I’d rather engage in philosophy or literature.  But I’m not the least bit -unscientific.  I don’t even see science as a threat to my faith.  What I have a problem with is the generally-accepted idea that science can explain everything and/or science is the only thing which can explain and make sense of reality.  And I believe I should be able to challenge that generally-accepted idea without being called a “science denier” or any other silly and untrue name.  I believe I should be able to challenge that generally-accepted idea without theatrics or the sarcastic thumbs up or the “wooo” or any other lowly way people try to avoid thoughtful debate  I believe challenging that generally-accepted idea is gall, the same gall Darwin was praised for.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Or, what’s gall for one is gall for other.  You can’t praise Darwin for questioning what was generally-accepted and then blast others for doing the same.  Rather, you have to allow the questions (all of them) to take you where they do.

The Next Step

Some guy walked passed me at the department store one day.  He had on a T-shirt which was making some statement about evolution.  The shirt said something about “the ascent of man” and profiles of ancient hominids becoming full-fledged homosapiens.

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Now it is possible that this shirt was more comedic than serious.  I couldn’t see either end of the ascent as the man was wearing a jacket which obscured them both.  There was also the name of some school under the profiles.  It could be that either the last or the first profile was something ridiculous (a professor from said school or something; I don’t know) which would have turned the whole thing into a joke.

Serious or not, though, I reacted to it.  As soon as I saw this shirt, I imagined things I could say to this man to debunk evolution.  I started thinking of how I could fight this man, in other worlds, fight him and his evolutionary presuppositions and all he has built on them.

But as soon as I realized I was doing that, I additionally realized I shouldn’t be doing that.  I realized that wasn’t the way of Jesus, whom I call my Lord and on whom I base my behavior.  I realized that Jesus didn’t fight with people, didn’t attack and throw down their worldviews, as much as He moved people into the next step in their walk with God.

The idea of “moving people” like this comes to me via something called “The Engel Scale”.  I don’t know who Engel was, but I learned of this scale during some disciple-making training a couple years ago.  The scale shows that people are not just “all God” or “no God” but are instead at differing levels of closeness to or distance from God.  The scale further shows that success in disciple-making is not necessarily a matter of -10 to +10 but could instead be a matter of moving someone from -7 to -6 or +1 to +2.

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This sounds correct to me.  It also seems a lot like what I see Jesus doing in the Gospels.  If you look at His encounters with tax collectors and religious leaders, with Nicodemus and the woman at the well and the rich young ruler, what you see is not Jesus so much engaging in large scale worldview battles as much as figuring out where they were and helping them to move one step closer to where they needed to be.

That being the case, Jesus probably wouldn’t have argued evolution with the guy I passed in the department store.  Jesus probably would have sidestepped evolution to find out where the guy really was and what the guy really needed to move closer to God.  And then He would have given it to him.  Jesus, in other words, would have been far more like a scalpel whereas I (and so many like me) are too much like an ax.

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I certainly would like to be more like Jesus in this area, would like to do more of what He did or do things more like He did.  I’m not sure how to do that.  But I believe it is the right and better thing to do.  I believe trying to move people to the next right step, giving them what they need despite themselves rather than beating them in an intellectual contest, is far more right and better than what I typically do.

Convincing The World That What You’re Working On Matters

I’ve been seeing this commercial a lot lately:

Now I think Windows 10 is fine, and I think this young lady’s desire to benefit others with cancer research is great.  I still have to comment, though, about her second-to-last statement.  She says,  “Half of science is about convincing the world that what you’re working on matters.”  And that got my attention because the fact is that this is impossible.  It is impossible to convince the world that what you’re working on matters.  It is impossible to convince the world that anything else matters, either.  It is impossible to convince the world that anything matters because the truth is that nothing matters.

Nothing matters in a materialisitic worldview, that is, the worldview which asserts that matter (which is different from matters) is all there is, that there is no spiritual/non-material/non-physical element to existence.  In this worldview, the universe and all humankind are nothing other than materials of various kinds which will eventually cease to exist.

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It is a popular worldview in our time.  I think it is, anyway.  Certain applications or ramifications of it are certainly popular.  It kind of acts as a default worldview; we all seem to be interacting on something similar to this in the public sphere.  If it is true, though, it dashes that young lady’s hopes of doing something that matters.  If it is true, it dashes everyone’s hopes of doing something that matters.  If it is true, nothing matters because everything will cease to exist and everything we’ve done (good, bad, or indifferent) will be null and void.

This is the truth that drove Leo Tolstoy to despair.  While searching for “meaning”, that is, something which mattered, he asked this question.

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His implied answer, of course, is, “No.”  It is “no” in a materialistic worldview, anyway.  If materialism is true, then, as Tolstoy so rightly saw, there is nothing which mattered, nothing which death would not stop from mattering.

This is likely what MacBeth was thinking about as well when he made this statement:

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More than anything, though, it is what Solomon discovered.  After spending a good deal of time trying to determine what was good in life (that is, what mattered), he came to this conclusion:

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All is vanity (empty, worthless, meaningless, matterless), Solomon says.  All is vanity, that is, apart from God (a spiritual worldview).

Now you may not accept Solomon to be the inspired and thus infallible teacher I take him to be.  You may not even accept that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes.  But you can’t deny that Ecclesiastes contains wisdom.  You can’t deny that whoever wrote the book was wise and that the book itself was considered wise enough (or containing enough wisdom) to be preserved.  You can’t deny that whoever wrote the book had more time and resources to devote to this question than most of us do (as he details in the first two chapters).  You can’t deny that his well-researched conclusion has some validity.

And it does.  I’d love that young lady to become a doctor and cure cancer.  I’d love her to do something that matters (not just convince the world of it but actually do it).  That’s not going to happen in a materialistic world or a materialistic worldview, though.  The only way to do something that matters is to get a different worldview, a spiritual one.