The Church was a mess in the 1400’s, corrupt, lazy, bloated with arrogance and drunk on power. Rumblings were inevitable. Had the Roman Catholic church listened and responded to the complaints history would have told a different story.
Erasmus was disenchanted, but he wanted peace more than anything. To him peace was best obtainable through theological ignorance:
“The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible”
That was the Catholic churches party line, its just that for Erasmus they needed to clean up their act a lot. This wasn’t good enough for Luther, he fired back at Erasmus:
“You with your peace-loving theology you don’t care about truth”
Luther won the debate and Europe was plunged into about 400 years of bloody religious conflict. Why? The answer is complicated, but the following points offer at least a partial answer:
- Religious upheaval was a prime opportunity for ambitious aristocrats and royals to accrue power. — There is nothing like a religious reason to motivate ones subjects to fight and conquer.
- The reformers were not proponents of individual religious liberty. Dissenting voices must still be crushed whether Reformer or Catholic.
- The accessibility of Scripture to the general public created dissenting voices on a massive scale.
- As the tyranny of the Catholic system was cast off, many marginalized people took this opportunity to cast off any and all authority. Rebellions were always met with brutality in that era.
- Belief is worth dying for. In this era nothing mattered more. But was belief worth killing for? Sadly, many answered that question (contrary to Jesus) in the affirmative.
If God had spoken, and if the human had somehow missed the message or clouded it beyond recognition as the reformers said, then it was necessary to go through this tumult. However, it is regrettable that so much blood had to be shed.
As a way to cope with our differences on the other side of the reformation we embraced individual religious liberty. We made faith a volunteer experience. The upside of this is we don’t battle each other any more. The downside is that confidence in the reality of God has been lost. The thinking goes as follows: If there are so many possibilities of belief, how can we know which one is actually real, we can’t. Therefore it’s all probably just made up stuff anyway. Doubt permeates our thinking, dogmatism must go and with it, in the long run, faith itself — Such seems to be the case in the West. As a matter of survival perhaps, it appears to me that Christianity is becoming more and more like Erasmus’s vision of it and less like Luther’s.
In the Biblical record of Jewish kings we see leader after leader succumbing to self absorption and then ruining all things good. Power invariably inflates our view of self, which results in human suffering. This isn’t just a localized problem that ancient Jewish kings experienced. This is every humans problem. It’s the story of human history! As I have read The History of the Medival World by Susan Wise Bauer this truth is the one constant.
What protections do I have against the corrupting nature of power?
1) Embrace A worldview that demands humility — I believe that I am one who is broken, in need of a Saviour, I am the recipient of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
2) Embrace a lifestyle that seeks service as the greatest form of leadership – “I am amoung you as one who serves” says Jesus, this “be great by serving others” model of living is exactly what Jesus attempted to instill in his followers.
3) Embrace a worship that exalts what is truly glorious. For the Christian, God is the creator and redeemer, the one who truly helps us and the one who will ultimately restore all the broken things in our lives and in this world. This God alone is worthy of the greatest praise. To celebrate the goodness of God in all things is of tremendous assistance when wanting to avoid the all to natural tendency towards self inflation.
…And his disciples believed in him
The celebration was far from over but the wine barrels were empty. Jesus managed to fix the problem in ways that bend the laws of nature! Confidence began to grow in the hearts of Jesus’ friends. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus was the Messiah. If he can take care of a wine problem, maybe he can take care of all of our problems. At this point in the story, they didn’t even know what that would look like, they had no idea of exactly who Jesus was, only that a seed of hope had begun to root itself in this mysterious yet approachable person named Jesus. Belief is the slow process in which over time ones hopes are transferred. Helping someone cross over into belief requires patience, gentleness, kindness and above all relationship. These disciples didn’t understand fully who Jesus was until he rose from the dead 3.5 years later. In the course of that time, however, Jesus proved himself to be a true friend and he patiently journeyed with these friends into belief. Christians of today would do well to follow his example.
C.S. Lewis wrote this book for Christians. In this book he seems to want to take a break from his typical apologetics work, he says “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” However, he fails in this endeavour. Whether Lewis tries or not he still manages to put a good word in for Christianity, It’s just who he his. In this case, he does so with some of the most difficult passages in the Bible.
Too Much Anger! The Psalms have a lot of anger, revenge, and “death to the enemy” kind of talk — which seems directly contrary to Jesus’ love for your enemy talk. Lewis points out that at least their anger shows that they took right and wrong seriously. Granted their indignation slipped into unhealthy vindictiveness at times. This admission, according to Lewis, doesn’t hurt the truth or reliability of Scripture. Rather it helps us to see how much God and his people should object to evil and it pinpoints with convicting accuracy our own indifference and dismissal of it as sickness, distraction, or poor choice.
Is God an egomaniac? We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness. Isn’t this exactly what the Psalms do in relation to God? Not according to Lewis. Lewis observes that men spontaneously praise whatever they value, and they spontaneously encourage others to join them in praising it. The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing exactly what all people do when they speak of what they care about.
Prophecy is silly. All of the passages that allegedly point to Jesus are suspect, because almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough. This point is granted, however, Lewis sees redemption’s grand narrative as a truth that exists in hints and echoes everywhere, he quotes Virgil and Plato. Certainly they didn’t know of Christ but yet they speak of him and his story in ways that transcend coincidence. It’s like the story of God is all around us, peeking out like flowers in spring time. Even the myths of Balder and Adonis resemble Christ. This is no accident any more than the resemblance between the sun and sun’s reflection in a pond is. The ancients all speak of the same thing they are sure of, but yet don’t fully know. The grand “ah hah” moment for all of them is realized in the coming of Christ. “yes, this must have been what I was talking about” is what they all would say, if given the chance.
What of inspiration? Muslims believe they have the direct word, handed down without human interaction, not so with Christians. The Christian Scriptures are more muddy. What does Lewis say of this? “The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping our selves in its tone or temper and so learning it’s over all message.” Lewis’ description here hardly fit’s into a concise bullet point in a statement of faith. It messy, a tad unclear, perhaps even a bit unnerving — kind of like life.
If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.
We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.
Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time.
Even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
When absolutely everything that can go wrong goes wrong. It is then that I rejoice the most in the God of my salvation.
It is in these moments that I reveal that God is not simply a means to an end for me but the end itself.
The idea of worshipping a God only because he made me rich healthy and successful is a great insult to the divine and a sign that I have no real relationship with him. God is not God in this arrangement. God becomes the servant of my will which is the true deity.
The clearest evidence that a person has not slipped into self worship by using God is when that person rejoices in God even when everything has gone wrong. It is in the moments of sorrow and pain that deep joy emerges from the true lover of God. This joy In God stands tall even and especially when the dark shadows of death overshadow us and the ones we love.
For the Christian, joy in God explodes forth from the cross. The cross conquers fear and death, selfishness and loneliness, shame and guilt. Everything that truly ruins us has been defeated. We are loved. We are welcomed into God’s family. We are accepted. We are slowly but surely transformed into who we should be. We have a hope that will not dim. This is the deep love of God for us and none of this changes no matter what tragedy befalls us.
Big Idea: For a long time historians have viewed the history of the Byzantine empire as little more than a millennium long uninspiring tail of decay. Certainly, if territorial expansion is the measure of success for empires than this assessment would have to be true. However Collin Wells makes the case that the cultural influence of this “forgotten empire” upon it’s three neighbours was and continues to be absolutely massive.
To the West: It was Byzantine humanists that taught the Italians to read and appreciate ancient Greek literature. The rediscovery of Greek thought that inspired the Renaissance happened because Byzantines monks carefully transported and meticulously copied these ancient greek texts for their Latin patrons. Without this investment the renaissance would never have happened
To the East: It was a Byzantine love for rational inquiry which led to the golden age of Islamic Science. As the Arabs conquered Byzantine lands they allowed themselves as illiterates to be taught by their captives. Eventually the Greek approach to gaining knowledge through rational inquiry was reacted against and completely squashed in the muslim world, laying the foundations for some of the more radical elements of Islamic thought that we see today.
To the North: The Byzantine empire managed to spread Christianity to Slavs, Bulgarians, and Russians creating a bond that transcended boarders and shaped the belief system of countless numbers of people.
Little bits of interesting:
- My way or the highway — The Byzantines were not very tolerant of variant versions of Christianity scattered around it’s empire. The persecution was so bad that when the Muslims came conquering in the 600’s, many un-orthodox Christians welcomed the invaders as liberators.
- Icon’s got to go! — For a long time Byzantine Christians were known for their Icons. Then a debate happened, all these images were actually idolatry it was said. God’s judgment would surely come. No! said the other side the icons are not worshiped as idols they are merely reminders of who we worship. Should they stay or should they go? War was where the decision would ultimately be made. Do we win or lose when we have the icons? They lost some battles, so it was time to burn and bury the icons. Eventually they came back but not for quite a while.
- The first bobble heads — In the 5th century, asceticism was all the rage and Simeon of Antioch was its rock star. His claim to fame was a 30 year run atop a 50 foot pole. He was so popular that people traveled all the way from Britain to just to catch a glimpse. Soon budding young entrepreneurs capitalized on the craze by creating and selling commemorative Simeon dolls!
- Rationalist inquisition — We’ve all heard about the Spanish Inquisition. Ultra religious people torturing people for not having enough faith. In the Muslim world in the 9th century almost the exact opposite kind of inquisition happened. It was an inquisition that tortured ultra religious people for not having enough reason! The leader, Al ma mun, was enamoured with the rationalist thought of the Greek Byzantines. Science, medicine, philosophy was the way forward for Islam. Muslim hardliners resisted this new openness to reason, so he rounded them up and tortured them until they accepted a more rationalistic doctrine. Significant people were martyred, and it became the rallying cry for a brand of Islam that would staunchly repudiate any kind of rationalism. This anti-reason version of Islam won and from its stream flows sharia law, the Wahhabi, and Osama Bin Ladin.
- I love my booze — Vladimir of Russia was tempted to convert to Islam in the 900’s he liked the part about how all carnal desires would be fulfilled in the after life. But he didn’t like the thought of giving up wine in this life “Russians cannot live without wine” he said and began shopping for other religions
- Sketchy conversion — God himself must live at the Haggia Sophia, said the Russians who investigated the possibility of becoming orthodox, but even the this dazzling architectural masterpiece in Constantinople wasn’t quite enough to make him and his Russian people convert. What did it was a war. The great Byzantine city was in trouble and needed soldiers. They offered a royal princess’s to Vladimir in marriage if he would fight for them on the condition that he would convert. He did, and Christianity came to Russia thanks to war, politics, and violence.
- Fresh Harvest – The Slav’s were the harvest field. Roman Christianity wanted to win them over and so did the Orthodox. They even got in fights over this. The Orthodox won. How? They decided that the Slav’s should hear the gospel in their own language. They helped them write their own language and then translated their liturgies into it. This horrified the Roman church who were certain that the language of the church must remain in latin. They stuck to their guns, and lost the Slavs to the Orthodox.
I love history, so I am bias, but I think that even a non-history person would be captivated by this book. Shelley captures well the heart of history, which is a story well told. In this volume it’s the story of Christianity. The glories and wonders of it, as well as the dirty laundry. He knits the whole story together by telling lots and lots of fascinating little stories along the way. This is not a history book that buries you with mind numbing lists of dates, places and events. Yes, they are in there but covertly woven into incredible, despicable, charming, disgusting, and miraculous stories of real people like you and me.
I know it sounds crazy, it’s a history text book after all, right? but I couldn’t put the book down and I learned so much.
I think it should be pointed out, that Shelley is not interested in glossing over the less glorious side of the Christian story. You will not just find a celebration of what is good in this book about Christianity but also an evaluation and analysis of what was not at all good.
For anyone left in our western world still interested in the concept of moral purity this is a helpful little resource.
Big Idea: Purity is always smart, impurity is always stupid. There is such a thing as moral law and it is as sure as the law of gravity. Test the law of gravity by stepping off a cliff you’ll get hurt. Test the law of purity by engaging in impurity you’ll get hurt
What loads of people will disagree with: What is moral purity then? Sex is a privilege inseparable from the responsibilities of the sacred marriage covenant. To claim the privilege apart from the responsibility perverts God’s intention and breaks the law of moral purity.
A lingering uncomfortable truth: Our society has in many respects muted the natural consequences for breaking moral law. We can prevent disease and eliminate the possibility of unwanted children. We can even alter any social stigma connected to sex outside of marriage. However there is no contraceptive for a guilty conscience. Even if the physical and cultural toll has been lessened through science and humanist philosophy, the emotional, psychological, and spiritual toll has not. The social landscape of our society remains littered with the carnage of broken hearts and broken lives.
Final observations: When it comes to breaking moral law, it rarely if ever, just happens, the battle for moral purity takes place in the mind, and it is lost in one hundred silent secret steps before any large leaps into impurity happen.
Perhaps the three greatest greenhouses for the growth of immorality are anonymity, loneliness, and leisure time. Remove these three from peoples lives, and immorality would sharply decline.
Big Idea: Humans do not need any kind of deity to inform us on goodness. The idea purported by religious people that non religious people simply cannot be good unless God is in the picture is absolutely reprehensible. The human is good because we have evolved to be so as a survival mechanism. We evolved to see the value in taking care of our kin. We’ve come to understand the helpfulness of reciprocity, (mutual back scratching). We are keenly aware of the value of a good reputation, and we’ve discovered that greater personal health is the result of unselfish actions. It is for these reasons, not any divine reason, that humans are good to each other. We have bound ourselves to living out these discoveries through social contracts, and through the inner voice that is inside of every human. Ultimately, what matters is dignity, dignity is embodied in the golden rule and is brought to full flower in an atmosphere of freedom and equality.
What I liked: Epstein is very critical of romantic love, as am I. Understanding love as merely some sort of mystical feeling based connection devoid of commitment and self sacrifice has been a really bad idea for human flourishing. Epstein is also a strong proponent monogamy, as am I, how with his philosophy, he arrives at this position with such conviction is a mystery that alludes my ability to solve, but at least I agree him.
What I did not like: In short, a lot. I will be as brief as possible highlighting only the major points of disagreement. The review would become tedious if I attempted to counter everything that I objected to.
- His victim mentality reaction to something he entirely misunderstands. Right here in the seed of inspiration for his book he stumbles. Epstein is convinced that religious people think it’s impossible for him to be good without God. He is hurt, wounded, insulted, and angry at such a suggestion. He cites C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Rick Warren, and Al Mohler to substantiate his accusation against Christians. In all his efforts Epstein grossly misrepresents Christian thought. All Christians every where believe that all people are capable of doing good deeds. Yes, Christians believe that all people are sinners in need of a saviour, so in a real sense no human is truly good without God’s salvation, however, no Christian believes that a person is incapable of good works. The question for the Christian as it relates to doing good things in the world is not can you be good without God, it is how does one determine what good is? That’s the question. With follow up questions being, If goodness is not an absolute how can one know it or enforce it? or Why be good if God doesn’t exist? Finally Epstein gets around to answering these questions sort of, but not before he wastes entirely to much ink getting all hot and bothered rebutting something Christians don’t even believe.
- His punting Hitler to the Christians. While he is all worked up, he makes a misguided attempt to communicate to his readers that Christians are more than likely the bad guys, since Hitler was a Christian. Really? Yup, Hitler said he was doing God’s will once and he made sure the belt buckles of his soldiers had inscribed on them “God is with us” — see he is a Christian. I wonder if anyone would conclude that Epstein was a Christian if they found a U.S. dollar in his pocket — see, right there in his pocket it says “in God we trust.” In truth, as early as 1935 Hitler was foaming at the mouth claiming that Christianity in it’s accepted form was an invention of the dirty Jew. He claimed that national socialism (Nazism) was the true fulfillment of Christianity. One could only be a true Christian if he was part of the Nazi party. Hitler lamented the fact that his country was rooted in Christianity, it’s principles of grace, mercy and forgiveness were weak and revolting to him. He is on record for wishing that Germany had been rooted in Islam or Paganism, according to his thinking those religions were more conducive to his principles of evil, hate, and violence. When the confessing Protestant church and the Roman Catholic church resisted Hitlers hostile takeover of Christianity, he killed them. He had good reason however because it was these Christians (not humanists) that were committed to his overthrow.
- His cavalier acceptance that evolution somehow proves origins – “We accept the scientific evidence for evolution as overwhelming” With that simple sentence Epstein concludes that he knows with reasonable certainty how life originated. A conversation about origins has nothing to do with science or evolution. Any position on origins requires a massive step of faith that probably should be discussed. But its not important to Epstein, to him evolution is true, God is beside the point, moving on.
- His belief that Mother Teresa is bad like Hitler – He links the two. What was Mother Teresa’s great sin that puts her in the company of a “Christian” such as Hitler? She failed to embrace Epstein’s worldview that accepts sexual freedom in all it’s forms. Never mind that she gave her life up for the good for the poor. Anyone who doesn’t have the same life stance as Epstein better be careful, they might end up on the bad boy bus with Hitler.
- His understanding of good lacks a moral imperative. According to Epstein, the human cannot with 100% certainty know what is good and what isn’t, however, he suggests goodness is connected to human need and interest. Trial and error, is the only mechanism to figure out the mystery of goodness and social contract is the only means to enforce it. Simply stated goodness is determined by self interest, pragmatism, and majority rule (if you happen to be in a democracy) Epstein isn’t totally comfortable with this so he makes statements like “of course rape is bad, you don’t need a God to figure that out.” but what if a culture decides that there is a need and an interest in rape? What if the powers that be form a social contract that make it so? What can be said? What can be done? Epstein knows that he is on thin ice, because this has happened in the past and is happening currently. (In Africa, South East Asia, and some Western sub-cultures) Even more unnerving for a humanist like Epstein is the use of social darwinism, an invention of humanism, to justify such brutalities upon the undesirable, unwanted, and unhealthy. What is his response? “Even though this has happened in the past it doesn’t mean we ought to do it now.” However “ought” implies a moral imperative, and where does the moral imperative come from in this system? That’s a good question, with no answer, which creates a huge problem. C.S. Lewis is still right, when absolute morality is debunked only “I want” remains. We can only hope that we humans will “want” the right things, the human track record however, doesn’t support this hope.
- He misunderstands the relationship between faith and reason. He says reason is more important than faith, but any philosopher understands that reason is always rooted in faith.
- He glosses over humanisms dark side, and then blasts the Bible without explanation. Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin all had some massive earth altering humanistic thoughts. Stalin adopted Marx’s thinking and killed more people than anybody. Hitler adopted Nietzsche’s thoughts, not Jesus Christ’s, and plunged the world into the greatest war ever. Margaret Sanger adopted eugenics which comes directly from Darwinian thought and pushed hard for the forced segregation and sterilization of undesirables. He spends almost no time wrestling through these very challenging problems that come with humanistic thought. He ignores them or dismisses them in a sentence or two as misrepresented and that’s it. He then quotes a couple Bible verses that appear to paint women as inferior to men and slavery as a justifiable option. This is his launching pad to ridicule the Bible and those who believe it to be true. Of course he doesn’t actually look at the context of those verses, or wrestle with what scholars have written about them. He just blasts away.
- His use of tired old reasoning to dismiss the idea of God – In four different places in the book Epstein posits that If God is real and all powerful, yet allows so much suffering in the world, he must be evil or powerless. In either case, this God who doesn’t fashion the world as Epstein would wish it is beneath his dignity to worship. I get it. There is nothing new here. The world is a messed up place. Why? The Christian has a ready answer. But Epstein isn’t really interested in hearing it. The humanist has no answer, and no real reason to care either, save maybe self preservation, which has little to do with authentic caring. So the humanist does a curious thing, he yells at a God that doesn’t exist, for not doing more to help the mess that is the world.
- Silly word games – He recognizes that all is not rosie in the humanist world, what does he do? He says, “oh, that bad stuff, that’s secularism not humanism.” Without humanism we do not have secularism.
- His careless merging of religions. He refers to the Wahabi and Evangelical Christians as essentially the same. This is simply not true. A pang of guilt should be felt in the heart of anyone who with such broad brush strokes links the muslim sect that produces Al-Qaeda with evangelical Christianity. The two groups are in different universes of philosophy, belief, theology, and practice. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either completely mis-informed or sinister.
- His disdain for historical accuracy — Epstein shares three ancient religious narratives, one of the Buddha, one of the biblical character of Job and one of Jesus. He completely butchers all three stories, misquoting and misrepresenting the narratives with gleeful impunity. In the end, he dismisses his care free retelling of these stories by indicating that it’s impossible to know history anyway. This is not scholarship, this is junk.
- His dismissal of Christian charity as “soul saving” and not really caring — Virtually every hospital, orphanage, soup kitchen, recovery program, educational institution and charity of any kind In the West and countless places around the globe were started by Christian people to help others. Epstein ignores all this, digs around for a while until he finds a story about some humanist nurses in Boston who for a few years help some sick people. He praises their actions and takes a poke at Christians by saying “see these nurses were actually interested in helping people not saving their souls” Christians are supremely motivated to help people because its right. A concept humanists are unable to embrace. Humanists help people for a litany of reasons but never for an absolute reason which is why Christians will always take the lead in helping people in need.
- His standard fare complaints against the wickedness of Christianity – The crusades come up, and so does the inquisition. Yes, countless atrocities have been committed in the name of some deity. Countless more have been committed without the invocation of a god’s name (Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Mau Zedong, Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Vladimir Lenin to list a few) none of which, conveniently enough are discussed in this book — A “body count” to determine whether the idea of “God” or “no God” is better is hardly a worthwhile exercise. Why does he bring it up? I’m not sure he want’s to educate as much as he wants to inspire a disdain for world views other than his own.
Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive….Pay back the guilty as they deserve.
2 Chron 6
So which is it forgiveness or justice? In one breath Solomon asks the Lord to forgive the people. Seconds later he asks God to pay back the guilty and vindicate innocent.
I don’t think forgiveness comes at the expense of justice. It’s not necessarily a one or the other kind of thing. A victim can forgive the criminal but the criminal may still need to go to jail. Forgiveness removes my hand from the throat of the one who hurt me. Forgiveness means there is no more ill will, hatred or need for revenge between me and the person who violated me. However because the human is wired for justice it is certainly possible that the forgiven man may still need to “pay his debt”. In fact one could say he must. The Christian God is a God of love to be sure and forgiveness but he is also equal parts a God of justice. God is simply not going to sweep human wickedness under the rug — justice matters to God, which is why it was imperative that Jesus die. The cross of Christ is the greatest mixing of justice and love there is. Yes, the Christian is forgiven by God because of Jesus but we must never forget that a massive price was paid to satisfy the righteous need for justice. As a result, Christians care deeply about justice. The wicked must be held responsible for their evil actions, and in some cases on earth this is possible. However in other places where it’s not possible, because of corruption or the complete absense of a justice system what then? Would a Christian embrace vigilante justice? No. There are times in life when a Christian will not be able to see justice served. In those moments the Christian will still forgive but he will definitely trust that the judge of all things will serve justice one day upon the perpetrator.