Don’t let disappointment destroy you. 3 min video
Is there away to prevent yourself from becoming bitter when others let you down? The only way that I know of I learned from Jesus.
How does one understand the one who is beyond human understanding? Not without a lot of wrestling!
What are the six questions?
Nothing new here, these six questions or iterations of them are precisely the ones that keep cranking out people who identify as “formerly Christian.”
Below are some of the helpful bits that I want to remember from Barton Priebe’s valiant effort to plug the six holes that seem to be sinking Christian ships everywhere.
Another attempt to smooth things over that fails to land is his observation that Jericho and Ai were only military installations. That means Israel would have inflicted casualties on military personnel and not civilians. The analogy given is that of tearing down the great wall of China but leaving Beijing undisturbed. This is bilge. The walled cities were places of refuge that civilian populations would have naturally run to for protection in the face of invasion. The Bible is clear that the Canaanite people were under God’s judgement not just their armies.
What I think is right and well stated was that Israel was not the big oppressor coming in, they were a ragtag bunch of former slaves who were complete underdogs. The real miracle is how these desert wanderers managed to avoid there own annihilation! Against all the odds, they carved out a tiny existence for themselves on a perpetually violent piece of real estate that sat at the crossroads of 3 continents. Also, I agree with Priebe that it’s important to realize the hyperbole in play. The great defeat and consequent slaughter of the Canaanites were markedly less impressive than some of the bravado indicates.
The Canaanites were really bad, I get that, and the book points this out with disgusting particularity. Which brings out the question at what point does one nation interfere with another nation that is really nasty. I believe, at some point, justice must trump sovereignty. Good countries must say to bad countries “stop it or else” — Is that what happened so long ago in Canaan? Perhaps at least partly, but the point is complicated to maneuver correctly in our world. Would anyone agree if a pro-life army was mobilized in the States to go to war against the great wickedness of the pro-choicers? Somehow we’ve managed to leave that judgement in God’s hands and have, I think, rightly, stuck to non-violent protests. Those who follow Jesus happily leave off any violent judgements on people to God. Ultimately what we find in the book of Joshua sits in uncomfortable tension with the teachings of Jesus. What I don’t understand, is how any ardent atheist can in good faith criticize the actions of the Jewish people so long ago. They don’t have the moral high ground to do it. Which brings me to Priebe’s strongest point in the book, and what I believe to be the most persuasive argument for continuing in the faith.
“If we are nothing more than complicated chunks of rock, it is difficult to see how our actions can be morally right or wrong. No one holds a boulder morally accountable for falling on and crushing another boulder. But we don’t believe that a man abusing a girl is simply a collision of rocks… We hold such a man to be morally accountable and yet if we live in an impersonal material universe, it is hard to see why the actions of complex rocks should be considered morally good and evil… Ultimately if there is nothing higher than human beings, than morality can only at most be a matter of opinion…Atheism, when followed to its logical end, has no categories for absolute good and evil… Atheists want to use Christian categories of universal absolutes and yet at the same time they deny that those absolutes exist.”
“It there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant…I do not believe this doctrine; neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.”
Priebe argues that the opposite of love is indifference and because God is love it is then impossible for him to be indifferent to evil and injustice, he will always be outraged and active against all wickedness. A God who cares deeply enough to be outraged about injustice is much better than one who is indifferent to it. He also leans heavy on Lewis: “Hell is locked from the inside.”
If all we need is a teacher of enlightenment, the Buddha will do; if all we need is a collection of gods for every occasion and need, and hope, Hinduism will do; if all we need is a tribal deity, any tribal deity will do’ if all we need is a lawgiver, Moses will do; if all we need is a set of rules and a way of devotion, Muhammad or Joesph Smith will do; if all we need is inspiration and insight into the sovereign self, Oprah will do; but if we need a saviour only Jesus will do.
— Al Mohler
All of us are exclusivists — it is impossible not to be. Every time we claim something is true, we are, by definition, claiming that its opposite is false. — Don’t feel bad next time someone rips on you for being an exclusivist. We all are.
Ellul may often be wrong, but he is never dull…when one engages the thought of Ellul, there is no such thing as a casual reading followed by mild acceptance or bland rejection.
And so it is with this eccentric French philosopher turned Christian. This book is an excellent, introduction to this man of many thoughts. In the review below I have laid out for you some of his bigger ideas.
The Danger of Technology/Technique and Efficiency
Technique tolerates no judgement from without and accepts no limitations… Since it has put itself beyond good and evil, it need fear no limitations whatever. In a technological society, efficiency, rather than goodness, truth, beauty or justice becomes the norm for social relations.
If we can build it, invent it, make it or do it, we should, especially if it makes us more efficient. Efficiency becomes the anchor point for our morality. For Ellul, this is the most “anti-human” way to go about life. For many Ellul is dismissed as a Luddite crank, a grumpy old man who refuses to get with the times. A future hater and a technophobe. I wonder if Ellul would have “tisk-tisked” the invention of the wheel or printing press had he been alive in those days. He may well have!
I also question Ellul’s contention that efficiency supplants goodness, truth and beauty as we develop and grow. Much modern architecture would suggest otherwise, besides what can be said of the worldwide movement to take care of our planet? Undoubtedly, the rise of our environmental consciousness has altered the way we go about living? If technology and technique are poured into making our planet flourish as it was meant to flourish, how is that bad?
At the same time that I raise a skeptical eyebrow in his direction, I also begin to feel like he is on to something. The human race today is rocketing forward with one paradigm breaking invention after another. If the “pace of progress” is swallowing up the souls of men than technology and the worship of efficiency are implicated.
Propaganda and the Church
Propaganda is the use of words, methods and psychological technique’s to sway individuals and groups of people into participation with an organization. Christianity is to have none of this. Instead, our faith is to spread slowly, relationally, from person to person focusing only on the person of Jesus. “We do not bring non-Christians into Church we carry the church to them” Unfortunately, Churches prefer to engage in the full constellation of propaganda techniques instead. When propaganda is used truth is exchanged for power. This trade utterly de-Christianizes the church. Is he right? What exactly does Ellul mean when he talks about propaganda? Social media? Catchy Christian sounds bites? Shiny new buildings? Christian radio? Mass advertising campaigns? State of the art sound and lighting? Mr. Ellul what exactly are you against here??? He doesn’t say! But you get the sinking suspicion that he is probably thinking of all of I’ve just mentioned and more. The church is not a burger joint out to manipulate people into buying burgers, so anything the burger joint might do to get people eating their burgers, the Christian church probably shouldn’t. Again he is on to something here, but what would a propaganda free church look like? Does such a church even exist?
The Supremacy of Words & Hearing
When I read this chapter for the first time, I dismissed it as garbage. Now I’m picking through the trash bag one more time to see if I missed anything. Ellul says that since speech is the one thing the distinguishes humans from non-humans, it’s the most important thing. Words are supreme; God has made it so. He puts his conviction succinctly “In the sphere of truth everything is related to the word, nothing to sight” He quotes Jesus for support. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Our image-saturated society has created nonthinking emotional spectators who must only believe whatever flashes in front of their eyes. In our day words live in total submission to images. They only exist as slogans for visually charged propaganda. Images bring about less and less thought and reason. Again, as I think about what Ellul is saying, I begin to wonder if he is on to something. But immediately I revolt, the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God. Those heavens have to be seen! God did create all the senses, and they are all good, not just the ears! Police wear body camera’s now because video tells more of the truth than words do. Would Ellul dispute this? What is visual is not some dirty bit of business designed by the devil.
Even still, his writing stirs something in me. It does seem correct that we are not able to properly think about things when they come to us visually. Images always create immediate visceral reactions it’s what they do. Ellul laments that “Images are considered trustworthy while words are suspect” In today’s era of “Fake News” I think everything has become suspect both audio and visual. So maybe Ellul has become dated? We have entered into an era of skepticism and narcissism are images to blame? Ellul says yes.
Reality and Truth
Reality is what is seen, counted and quantified. Realities world is the material world, and it can be known through the accumulation of data. Truth is different; truth pertains to questions of purpose or meaning. Images are helpful in determining reality; they are not helpful in determining the truth. Because the world has become image based we have become “utterly indifferent to the question of truth” says Ellul. In the modern mind, reality has become truth, and nothing exists beyond reality. When Christians use images to help them discover the truth, reality and truth get confused, and we are worse off for it. He doesn’t quite take us back to the Iconoclastic debate which helped to weaken the Byzantine empire. See my review of that crazy time in Church history, but he warns us through Augustine “Images can be used, but they should never be loved.” Is there actually a difference between truth and reality, or is this just Ellul doing his thing? I don’t know. This distinction is a more sensible way to attack images and put them in their proper place I suppose. I’m just not ready to say that there is no “truth” from anything that we happen to take in through our eyes. That’s nonsense to me.
The City is the Devils Playground
Ellul’s work on the city is easily his most unpopular. Its English title was The Meaning of the City, but Ellul’s critics all insist that it should be renamed The Demeaning of the City. Ellul believes that the first city was built by Cain as an act of rebellion against God. Therefore all cities have in their DNA a rebellious rejection of God. From Babel onward cities have a bad rap in the Bible When humans come together God gets pushed out; it is as simple as that. Ellul doesn’t hate cities totally, he believes Jesus will one day redeem them, but he holds out no hope for Christians having success in cities before the return of Christ. Thus he is critical of city planning and technological advancements to make cities better. To Ellul, this is just putting a band-aid on a systemic problem. Beautiful walkways and rapid transit, won’t free the city from evil. If a Christian finds himself in the unenviable position of living in an urban environment, he should focus in on practicing faithfulness to God through varying degrees of martyrdom, for that is all the city brings to the Christian who call it home. I have to admit this is pretty depressing and I would like to reject Ellul thoughts on the city, all through my last eight years in our city match up nicely with what he has said. So there is that.
Politics, Economics, and Work
I read somewhere that Ellul was a Christian anarchist. I can see why now. People worship their systems whether it be communism, fascism, or capitalism. Ellul loves to profane all three. Capitalism’s god is money. How can a Christian revolt against the idolatry of this system? By giving his money away. The God of fascism and communism is the ruler and loyalty to “The Fatherland” or the “collective system” a Christian can resist this idolatry by affirming the liberty of the individual person. When it comes to politics a Christian’s job is to desacralize it all. This doesn’t mean non-involvement, but it does mean having the conviction that every system is fundamentally flawed. We work within our various systems, but we don’t get hopeful about them.
Working for joy and working for beauty is part of God’s gift. However, work out of necessity to gather a surplus, to make a living or to produce is all part of the curse. That whole Protestant work ethic thing, Ellul wouldn’t subscribe to I don’t think. For him, It’s just a convenient excuse to justify ruthless capitalism.
The Authority of Scripture
“Scripture is God speaking to humanity through the text…It is clear that every living word of God cannot be different from that which is attested precisely in the Bible…It turns out that the God who spoke to men in the Bible is also our God, and directly ours, thanks to their witness.”
He acknowledges that faith is ultimately the only way anyone can arrive at the above conviction.
Regarding interpretation, Ellul thought it best to stay away from overly literal and historical investigation. The Scripture’s were not intended to be picked apart into little pieces with all details analyzed. What mattered was to keep the big ideas of Scripture in the forefront. So for example, a detailed look at Genesis as the historical, objective account of how we came to be would be a mistake. The big idea of the first part of Genesis is learning how God relates to man.
Finally for Elull love is the centrepiece of the image of God in each human. Love only exists if there is freedom. So God’s gift of freedom to humanity means that “God submits himself to human initiatives…God withdraws in order to leave the field free for humanity…God does not step by step, minute by minute, dictate what is to happen in the world, thereby establishing the reality of that world, as it were.” With this view, sovereignty and even divine providence get shoved aside. Anything that smacks of “fate” has to bow the knee to freedom. The age-old paradox that has the free will of man in tension with the sovereignty of God is solved for Ellul — but not for me.
We don’t know it all — Christian Ethics should be a temporary guide that is continually revised, reexamined, and reshaped by the combined effort of the church as a whole
We shouldn’t be pushy — One of the essential rules of the Christian like is never to ask a non-Christian to conduct himself like a Christian.
Christians are not about rules — Gods revelation has nothing whatever to do with morality. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He goes on to say that Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with Jesus Christ, to which no Christian would disagree. However, such a statement is a bit misleading; one need only read the Bible to see that morals are kind of a big deal to God.
Absolute Freedom — Love pre-supposes freedom, the Christian is free to do what he wants; there are no lists. How then does the Christian not disintegrate into subjectivism and relativism? Ellul hints at three answers. The Holy Spirit will guide us, freedom is not a revolt against order, and love is a good guide. Living out Christian freedom is exhausting work! It’s much easier to follow a list. But Ellul is certain the easier path is not, the better path when it comes to ethics.
Well, that was interesting. A comedian writes a book on the reality of hell, and he is not joking, but yet the book itself is full of jokes. Wait, what? Exactly.
So, what is going on here? People, and especially Christian people of late, don’t like the idea of hell – it’s too harsh, too off putting, too out of touch with reality, too unbelievable. Thor Ramsey quotes social critic and comedian Bill Hicks to capture the incredulity of an actual place called hell:
“Christianity is such an odd religion. The whole image is eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. Believe or die. Thank you for all those options.”
This skepticism of hell has not just dripped into the church, it has poured in like a flood. Notable Christian celebrity Rob Bell basically says the same thing in his book:
“God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?”
Thor Ramsey is not about to go along with this drifting tide of “envangellyfish” as he calls them. If hell becomes only a metaphor, or a temporary holding tank that eventually dissolves into heavenly bliss for all, or morphs into annihilationism, then all is lost. According to our funny-boned author, the entire Christian story becomes meaningless. It’s kind of a big deal, so Thor cracks jokes and quotes Bible verses and makes his case that a punishing eternal hell is very real, very terrible, and to be avoided at all costs – through faith in Jesus.
“If Hell freezes over… the loss of eternal punishment as it is taught in the Bible will result in the shrinkage of God’s attributes and in the end, a smaller God. We will suffer the loss of the fear of God, the loss of a holy God, the loss of a just God, the loss of an extravagantly loving God, and the loss of God’s wisdom in the cross. We can’t afford to lose the attributes of God. Otherwise we have a meaningless gospel. But the greatest loss whenever Scripture is minimized is the loss of knowing the self-revealed God of this universe.”
Does Thor have a point? I think so. Below are my observations:
This book is blunt and rough, even with all the jokes. What’s Thor’s message in a nutshell? God is perfectly righteous – we are not. Hell is real. We need Jesus desperately. We must repent and follow Him. There are eternal consequences if we don’t.
Thor makes a blood-earnest call for Christian leaders to forsake the notions of a “Santa Claus” God who is always happy, always gushing with love and good gifts, regardless of what we believe or do. Santa Claus is not the God of the Bible. Thor wants to reawaken us to the God who is a consuming fire, who will not be a party to any wickedness, but who loves us so deeply that He was willing to sacrifice all for our salvation.
You also will command nations you do not know, and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey, (Is 55:5)
The carrot is misplaced.
Isaiah continually says if you follow God you will essentially rule the world. You be able to dominate other nations and of course, if you don’t follow God other nations will dominate you.
My issue is I don’t give a rip about dominating other nations. I don’t even want to do that I just want to live in peace. The carrot for an ancient warrior tribe on the verge of extinction from many different fronts, would, I guess, be domination. But that means nothing to me as a peaceloving, free, and largely protected Canadian! — In fact, all this “world domination” talk is objectionable to my ears.
I have little doubt that colonialists probably had these verses emblazoned on their ships as they went around on world conquest in the name of Jesus. So how do I love this?
”If you follow God you will win the Stanley Cup, If you don’t you’ll be stuck in perpetual mediocrity like the Vancouver Canucks, or even worse your team will be relegated to the AHL. You’ll have no control over your players, the NHL will own you, picking up your best players whenever they want! Look, if you don’t obey God it’s everlasting “B “league for you.”
Ok, I understand now 👍
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I create the light and make the darkness.
I send good times and bad times.
I, the Lord, am the one who does these things (Is 45:6-7)
There is nothing that enters into our world that escapes Gods notice. If God was not willing to allow something it would not happen. Both the good and the bad have God’s all seeing eye on them. Nothing is hidden from God. So how is it then that a good God can allow bad things to happen?
We believe that God redeems even the bad things. So when we must walk through these dark valleys, we firmly hang on to the idea that some how, some way God will bring good out of it. The best example of this is the cross of Christ. Incredible evil allowed by the hand of God upon himself! All for an incredibly redemptive and wonderful purpose.
This explanation will be unsatisfactory to many, and in the deep moments of pain and sorrow it will always be better to simply cry with the crying rather than attempt to drive home any theological truth about God.
Speaking of God. what other options are there?
Ultimately regardless of my doubts I must come to see God as good even when he allows suffering to enter into my life. I refuse a negative judgement upon God recognizing that I don’t know everything but am trusting that he does. That is faith.
I already know that the theology police are not super happy, their citation pads are out and they are furiously scribbling down infractions. What has them so upset? The Shack is now a movie. It’s not just the theology police either, I imagine the theatrical police have their issues as well. It’s always difficult for actors to depict convincingly for the screen spiritual struggle. I will leave the varying theological and theatrical policing blogs to do their necessary work. As for me, I only want to comment on how I believe the movie managed to capture powerfully the big ideas of what it means to be a Christian person connected to God in the midst of grief.
A Christian person — To be a Christian, is to get to a point where you agree with God that he is good and to be trusted. Jesus, God in the flesh, is the vital link in getting us to that place. We are told, that when you’ve seen Jesus you’ve seen God. You must walk with Jesus to avoid sinking into the black abyss of guilt, shame and bitterness. In this movie Christianity is portrayed simply as being friends with Jesus, trusting him. It’s not about religion, or keeping a list of rules, or paying for past sins. Both Mack and his older daughter blamed themselves for the death of Missy. The older daughter was fooling around in the canoe. In her mind it was her irresponsibility cost Missy’s life. For Mack he was sure that this unspeakable tragedy was the result of his own past sins. Both their lives became stuck in the quicksand of guilt and shame. Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice they both came to believe that the time for blame and guilt was over. Bad stuff happens, our hearts break, we suffer, great sadness occurs, but we don’t get stuck, we trust that through it all God will do what is good and right and true. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
Connected to God — God is depicted as a trinity so that we can see that the Christian God is fundamentally relational. Love is possible only in relationship and the Father, Son and Spirit have that in bucket loads. God’s invites us into this love. In the movie God reminds Mack regularly that he is especially fond of him and all humans. That was a tough one for Mack to accept, and it’s a tough one for all humans to accept. We all must suffer and we all must die. Reconciling human suffering with God’s goodness is not a new conundrum, and this movie offers nothing new in resolving that tension, except in this movie God gets to answer directly the charges levelled against him. I found God’s explanations in the context of this movie powerful and helpful. All three persons of the trinity, are shown to feel our pain. That’s the reason all three have nail prints. God changes his appearance in order to help us understand that he knows what we need when we need it. God is portrayed as all knowing, but yet keenly interested in our lives. And though God loves all his children, he is not disinterested in justice either. In the end we are told that God will make right judgements upon his wayward children, however, we are also told in compelling fashion, that this job of ultimate justice is better left with God. The perpetrator is never caught, justice never served in the movie. Even still Papa wants Mack to “remove his hand from the throat” of this terrible predator. Forgiveness is the only way forward, but by forgiving Mack is also entrusting himself to the judge of all the earth who will judge rightly.
In the midst of Grief — When we suffer, we have to realize that we don’t have the complete perspective. We can only see through the “knothole of our own grief.” The garden in the movie is an absolute mess from Mack’s perspective, but when the shot pans out and you see the garden from the air, mess turns into beauty. God is not the ultimate source of evil, human free will prevents that conclusion, however, God is actively working in and through evil to bring about a greater good, good that we can’t always see, but must learn to trust is there.
I think if every person walked away from this movie, having taken into their hearts the above conclusions about Christianity, God, and grief. The world would be an infinitely better place.
“God is Love” is always a much more interesting topic than “God is Trinity” however, Reeves contends that we can appreciate God as love only because God is Trinity. As Reeves made pains to prove his thesis, I did not feel like I was reading another theological treatise on the unassailable doctrine of the Trinity, rather it read like a friendly invitation to discover and love the triune God. Also I found salient, humorous, and fascinating little historical gems scattered throughout the book, which made the read even better.
Reeves asks the question; “What was God doing for all eternity?” His answer: loving the son. (John 17:24-26) The trinity gives us a completely unique vision of an eternally loving God. Love happens in the context of a relationship. The trinity makes it possible for there to be a divine relationship. Drawing this connection between trinity and true love is not a new concept, Richard of St. Victor centuries ago understood the triune love with the term “sharing”. “Its not that God becomes sharing he’s always been sharing, he is Triune. If God were just one person he could not be intrinsically loving.”
The Trinity and Apologetics — The concept of the Trinity is so good in Reeves mind that it makes other religions look, well, not so good. Islam in particular, is a target: Love demands a relationship or it doesn’t exist. The Quran teaches that Allah is loving which means, he must be dependent upon his creation in order for that to be true. But the Quran also teaches that Allah is dependent on no one. This creates a conundrum with no way out, but not if one believes in a non-solitary God as Trinitarians do.
The Trinity and the submission of women to men? — For many I Cor 11:3 3 But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. has long been a verse used to teach submission, and in particular at it most practical level the need for women to submit to men. Since Jesus submits to the Father so to should women submit to men. Reeves doesn’t take that approach. He see’s this passage as “A gracious cascade, a waterfall of love” For Reeves the focus is not on submission rather love. he doesn’t deny headship, but he doesn’t describe it either, he sidesteps it.
“For eternity, the Father so loves the Son that he excites the Son’s eternal love in response; Christ so loves the church that he excites our love in response; the husband so loves his wife that he excites her to love him back. Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of this God.”
To me the passage and it’s context is still confusing, but I like Reeves generous attempt to infuse the entire passage with love, even though I don’t quite see it in the text like he does.
Does everything hang on the trinity? I’m wondering if perhaps he attributes a little to much to the triune God. Good can’t exist without the Trinity. Evil has no real explanation with out the Trinity. Love appears to be void of meaning without the Trinity, God becomes an empty word without the Trinity etc. etc. I get it, he is making the case for loving the Trinity. I think Trinitarians have probably not done enough to imagine and appreciate the implications of a robust acceptance of the doctrine, so I’m inclined to give Reeves an “At a Boy” and not an “Easy Tiger” on this.
The best way to understand God. God is not an abstract quality he is a loving father. The Scripture doesn’t suggest that God becomes a father at some point, rather he always was a father. That is how he is known. God is a father by virtue of his relationship with his son. God should not be viewed primarily as creator or ruler, but instead as a loving Father. Humans are the creative result of an overflow of love. Reeves describes the human originating from “The overflowing joy of the heavenly harmony bursting out!” Who doesn’t like that? But you only get to that vision of humanity if you have a non-solitary God who is truly love.
The whole “Solitary God” thing just isn’t cool
From Reeves’ pen straight up…
For strip down God and make him lean and you must strip down his salvation and make it mean. Instead of a life bursting with love, joy and fellowship, all you will be left with is the watery gruel of religion. Instead of a loving father, a distant potentate; instead of fellowship, contract. No security in the beloved Son, no heart change, no joy in God that the Spirit brings
Reeves is not kidding around here
If he is not essentially triune then he is not essentially loving and it’s a real reason why Atheists would prefer no God over this grizzly image of the single person loner ruler God.
I was really captured by this book. It didn’t help me understand the Trinity any more but it helped me appreciate the Trinity way more. The Trinity is not an insignificant doctrine that demarcates Christianity from everyone else, its the diamond in the crown of Christianity.
The Trinity of God is the secret of his beauty — Karl Barth
If we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son & Spirit, then only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God — John Calvin
They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13
Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians) wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44
With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.
For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.
As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:
There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess. Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.
If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.
Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.
Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table. How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?
Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love. This is good advice for all the religions of the world.
This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.
Jeffrey Lang grew up in an abusive home, his nominal Catholic faith provided him no solace for the suffering he endured. By his mid teen age years he had become a convinced atheist. In his 20’s a friend handed him a Quran, he started reading, over time he left atheism and embraced the way of Islam. Why?
According to Lang, Islam is better because unlike Christianity, human suffering is not a result of God’s angry judgement. In the beginning according to Lang’s interpretation of the Quran, there is no great sin that brought condemnation to the human race. There was only a little “slip up”. God didn’t get angry or feel threatened by this inconsequential eating of unauthorized fruit.
The big idea of the ancient Adam and Eve narrative is not one of divine judgment and human brokeness, rather divine mercy and human preparation. God does not punish Adam and Eve, rather he blesses them and tells them not to be afraid or sad. The “slip up” was part of their training. Now they must use their reason to choose God in the midst of suffering.
The choice between right and wrong is always a struggle (Jihad), but by using the facility of reason & intellect the right choices can be made and the relationship with God strengthened. Salvation comes through the work of the mind. Lang confesses that the greatest problem with unbelievers (non-muslims) is their inability to think properly “Unbelief in Islam, is an infirmity of the mind” Lang says.
The point of Islam is to have a close relationship with God. Since God is transcendent how is that even possible? The Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, just, protective, wise, generous, truthful, and peaceful. All of these attributes are the seeds of God that reside in every human. When we love God by living out these attributes in the everyday God loves us back. These seeds of divinity grow into full flower as we yield to the will of God and this is how we find ourselves in close relationship with him.
Suffering is good because with out it, we could never learn to use our reason and make the right choices to live out the attributes of God. When we fail to water the seeds of divinity in us, we destroy ourselves, thus sin is simply self destruction. Hell then is not so much a punishment from God, as it is the ultimate self destruction
I’m happy for Lang, in that he certainly seems to have found the solace he was looking for. I think he misunderstands the Christian story and I am not entirely sure he’s got the Muslim story right either. But lets assume for the sake of this article he has the Islamic story correct. What are the big differences?
A curious observation: I agree with Lang about the need for the human to choose. Islam is the better story to him and he has chosen it, it makes the most sense to his mathematical mind. I respect that choice, even though I don’t agree with it. I wish all Muslim’s would be so generous when it comes to the matter of religious choice. Let’s turn the story around a little bit. Is there any doubt as to what would have happened to Jeffrey Lang, if he had been born Mohammed Al Ghamdi in Saudi Arabia? Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone gave him a Bible in his mid twenties and through secret study he decided that Christianity was the better story. In his enthusiasm for his new religion he begins to speak out in his home town of Medina that Jesus is his Saviour. I am certain we wouldn’t be listening to his speeches for long, we would be visiting his grave site instead. In our pluralistic world of today, something is wrong when a religion forces it’s adherence to believe on pain of death. I hope Lang’s message of free choice goes a long way in the house of Islam.