Mapping God

If you’ve been paying attention you can’t help but notice that there is currently a huge press by fundamentalist atheist to discredit the orthodox Christian view of God. I think one of the reasons that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens (and others) are so successful lately is partly a reaction against President Bush. The writers mentioned above are reaping the success of a fairly simplistic emotional syllogism in the public at large: Bush is a idiot; Bush is a Christian; Christians are idiots.

Alister E. McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford, has both written a book, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, and given a lecture, available in both mp3 or mov format at Veritas, titled “The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the Meaning of Life” that convincingly challenges and refutes these arguments.

The national conversation in the Blogosphere has sparked some interesting approaches to theology. Andy at Sinning Boldly has written a post title “Richard Dawkins and a Personal God” in which he took a rather clever route of trying to map out the various approaches to defining God’s relationship to His creation. Rather than plotting transcendence and immanence in a linear way, he has proposed that there are actually two axes.

Author: Andy at Sinning Bodly, Used By Permission Used by Permission

It’s an interesting approach, but for me it’s never been an either/or. God is both transcendent and immanent; that is, to use Andy’s phrasing, He is both “wholly external” (a spin-off of Tillich’s “Wholly Other” I imagine) and “organically present.”

Since Jesus is both wholly other and organically present and ontologically distinct one would have to have some non-Euclidean spherical and multi-dimensional axis in order to map Him, but that’s way beyond me. I don’t know much about the mathematical field known as topology, but it seems to me that mapping God would require some kind of Möbius strip in which God loops and bends back in on Himself, and even then we’d only see shadows of His real nature.

Just Imagine

When I was a boy, I was most impressed with the power of God. “Wow,” I used to think, “My God can just speak and worlds are created.” I was often times like a little boy thinking “My father can whup your father.” And it’s true. Our God is an “awesome God.” He did create ex nihilo, out of nothing, but it was even more awesome than that.

One day, with boyhood years behind me, something hit me as I was taking a fall walk and praying. I was thanking God for the beauty of His creation, the changes of the seasons, the harvesting of crops… all the things I saw around me: the way the breeze came up, the smells of the ditch flowers, the sounds of birds and rustling leaves.

I was telling God not only how wonderful and beautiful it all was but how amazing it was the way all the diversity of nature was so intricately connected, the way it all worked in such incredible harmony. “And You brought this all into being by Your Word and will alone without even…”

Have you ever been surprised by your own thoughts? That is, when the words came out of your mouth or off your pen have you have just then realized the truth of what you said or wrote; the act of writing or speaking did more than express your thoughts, it actually seemed to create them as you spoke or wrote?

William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote that “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” I would include almost any form of art in that, and I would also include prayerful contemplation.

As I was praying that final line, when I got to ‘even’ my voice slowed down, and I listened in delighted surprise as I finished my sentence: “…without even a single frame of reference.” Then I said it again, excitedly: “And You brought this all into being by Your Word and will alone without even a single frame of reference.”

Now, maybe this is a commonplace idea, but it had never occurred to me before. Everything, and I mean every single thing, that human beings have ever created has been the product or amalgamation of what was already created. We know this as children when we give God credit for all we have. A child may say to her parents, “But God didn’t make this house, people did,” and the parents reply: “But God made the trees. He made the metal. He made all the things that people used to build the house.”

But, it applies to the Arts as well. Not one writer or filmmaker or artists or musician ever created something without a frame of reference, without combining what was already here. In fantasy, the griffin, the sphinx, and the dragon are all parts and pieces of other animals.

Forget for the moment that you could not actually create something from nothing because you don’t have the power, but try to imagine creating something even as simple as a daisy without ever having seen one. Try to imagine just imagining something if there was nothing, let alone imagining it and then creating it.

Imagination is hard work, maybe one of the hardest mental obligations we have, but it is an obligation. We can not practice Jesus’ commands without it. How can we do unto others as we would have them do unto us unless we can imagine ourselves in their place? But more than that: “Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.” (John Piper)

Imagination is like a muscle that must be exercised. Far too often we let others do our imagining for us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, but sometimes it makes us mentally lazy. The imagination suffers when we passively and uncritically absorb words and images and sounds.

I think it’s especially hard for adults, so I’d like to share with you a mental exercise that I imagined one day listening to a favorite song of mine. Kenny Loggins wrote a song titled “Return to Pooh Corner” about how as we age we wander much farther away than we should and “can’t seem to make [our] way back to the [hundred acres] woods.”

The second verse goes:

Winnie the Pooh doesn’t know what to do
Got a honey jar stuck on his nose
He came to me asking help and advice
And from here no one knows where he goes
So I sent him to ask of the Owl if he’s there
How to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear

So try this, I do. The next time you’re stressed out, frustrated, caught in the grind, and can’t seem to find your way back to the woods, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath and try to imagine “how to loosen a jar from the nose of a bear.” And there it is! You just smiled, didn’t you?

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get “back to the house at Pooh Corner by one. You’d be surprised there’s so much to be done. Count all the bees in the hive; chase all the clouds from the sky…”

And when I arrive I’ll give thanks and praise to the God who imagined imagination itself, and I’ll remember that Loggins couldn’t have sung about Pooh if Milne hadn’t first imagined and created him , but that Milne couldn’t have created an imaginary bear named Pooh if my awesome God hadn’t first imagined and created a real bear.

Foucault’s Folly

Unable to participate in national debates in any other way, I have participated in religion and politics discussion forums on the Internet for years. I have noticed that many of the exchanges are based on power. Discussions are frequently full of postmodern machinations designed to subvert any attempts at clear thinking.

It is an axiom of contemporary postmodern posturing to see everything as some Foucaultian power struggle for control of perceptual reality. Such po-mo chic argues that “everything is permitted; nothing is true.” (I for one wish that those who wish to affect such an ironic knowingness would just remain silent because each time they engage in a debate they indict the very foundation of their pose and saw the very branch upon which they sit out from under themselves.)

Instead of trying to discover as much as is possible about some specific, concrete historical event (real historical scholarship), be it Waco or the Holocaust, many would rather play relativistic games with rhetoric in order to manipulate opinion; history is ironically imperialized and treated as strategy. Just look at an old article in “The Atlantic” which describes a lawsuit in Great Britain as “putting the Holocaust on trial and making historical truth the defendant.” There a Holocaust denier was suing for libel because an American historian called him a “dangerous spokesperson for Holocaust denial.”

Truth is becoming a power struggle. Many in the national media, for example, try to discredit a source, or they slant a person’s motivation with endless interpretation and cries of partisanship. Rarely do they attempt to discuss the issues or debate matters of disputed fact.

Others will try to confuse people with assertions of truth’s relativity, but just because human knowledge may be more or less contingent does not mean that something specific, concrete and actual did not take place in a particular moment of history. That our knowledge of those events can only be partially known, and the fact that cries of partisanship are shouted, in no way changes that or precludes our responsibility to the truth.

It is the highest of human conceits to argue that historical reality, or any other reality, is somehow implicated by and entwined with human fallibility and finitude. Simply put: because human knowledge is subjective, to a more or less greater degree, in no way means that truth is relative.

Knowing the limits of reason, the contingency of human knowledge and the self-limiting nature of all conceptual frameworks, some people try to mitigate those limitations through an open, well-informed presentation of issues and points of factual dispute.

Others, however, use the above limitations to obfuscate: manipulating, mischaracterizing, dissembling and deconstructing in order to try and keep the discussion enmeshed in some meta-struggle for conceptual control of the public square. Turning discourse into “Thus Speak I” shouting matches and charges of partisanship, they attempt to manipulate perceptions with rhetoric so that they do not have to actually bring any evidence to bear on their assertions.

All one can do, I suppose, is attempt to rescue cogency from the grip of muddled reasoning one hipster doofus at a time.

The Slow Smokeless Burning of Decay: What Will We Leave On-line?

As a boy I used to explore the miles and miles of woods behind my house. I grew up in rural North Carolina where I could have walked to the nearest town, which was five miles away, had I been allowed, and barely stepped foot on a road. Out the back door, into the woods, through the tobacco fields, over a fence or two, across a dirt road, back into the woods and out through fallow fields on the edge of town and into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot.

I had no Sony Playstation, no VCR, no computer with an Internet connection, and sometimes no TV. My parents would always take a TV from one of their own parents when their parents bought a new one, and when ours would break that would be it until the grandparents bought another. Sometimes we went years without one, it seemed. Books and nature were my truest friends.

I remember many times when I was out exploring the woods and I would come across a sign of man from ages long gone. One of my favorites was an old wagon trail, the ruts grown over with underbrush, but still discernible. I got a tremor in my stomach the first time I found it. A little research much later in life led me believe (probably fancifully) that it was the trail used to settle the area a little less than two hundred years before. The settlers had followed the Neuse River over from New Bern.

Just like that I was in love with history. I still get that tingle in my stomach when I go into a library and research something, or visit an historic sight. I found old wood stoves, wooden barrels, tools and even fence posts from old settlements that the forest had reclaimed.

Americans hardly ever walk anywhere anymore. We are so attached to our cars, mini-vans and SUVs that few of us know what it’s like to go a walking through the woods and stumble over the remains of those who passed before us. Robert Frost knew.

In 1912, just before he made what he would call a “great leap forward,” Frost wrote a poem that was very special to him: “The Wood-Pile.” Just before his death almost fifty years later he would single this poem out to be used in his annual Christmas card.

In it the narrator is “Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day” when he stumbles across on old woodpile:

The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

When in our journeys in life we stumble across the decay of previous generations, it can catch us by surprise, as if we suddenly see ourselves “in a slanting mirror.” Yet, if we pause and reflect upon who they were, what their lives must have been like and upon our own impermanence we can absorb them and be the stronger for the encounter.

I have to wonder what remains my children will find in their Playstations and TVs and pop culture. It doesn’t look good, and yet I hope. With all the trash littering the information superhighway, there are still a few gems to be found. Who knows what information will be left forgotten for dead out here in cyberspace?

Maybe “Somewhere ages and ages hence” my children’s children’s children will come along two roads diverging in the frozen swamp of cyberspace, and just maybe they will take the one less traveled by and find it warmed “With the slow smokeless burning of decay” of some lost “wood-pile” that you and I put on it today.

I hope it might “[make] all the difference.”

Late Night Thoughts on Limited Atonement

In the quite of night-
a time I dread-
remembering times gone
and loved ones dead.
The grief so strong,
like a hammer’s blow.
I gasp out loud,
the tears flow.
How I loved them!
Did You love them too?
Will I see them again?
I wish I knew.
If alone You choose,
why limit the call?
Love without action
is not love at all.

I wrote this poem at a time when I was beginning to have grave doubts about predestination and God structuring our salvation in such a way that we are helpless in its decision. That was over 15 years ago, and I still haven’t worked it out. In the belief that “questions tell us more than answers ever do” (Michael Card), I frequently ask lots of questions that I don’t really propose to answer.

Below are some I wrote after writing the poem. I won’t try to answer them here. But 15 years later, I think my position is this: God predestines some, known to Him as the elect, to salvation, and He may predestine some to damnation. Of that I am less confident, and I tend to be more like Luther than Calvin. Aside from those, I think that God makes it possible (that is He somehow provides enough grace ) for others to accept Him.

In other words, some receive God’s grace like a dead person receives the air blown into his lungs. Others accept his gift the way we accept a compliment. In neither case is the one who is saved doing anything to earn salvation, it is a free gift of grace, but those predestined have no choice and those not do.

The questions that drove this poem:

I don’t mean to question the sovereignty of God, but does it have to be an either/or situation, either God ‘s grace or our choice? Could it be that God gives us sufficient grace to choose Him if we want? But then this opens up a whole can of worms implying that God’s grace can be resisted. If it can be resisted then He is not sovereign is He?

However, that aside, the thing that troubles me is that if God deliberately chooses those who are damned can He be said to love them? I realize that we are not worthy of being loved, that we rejected Him, but He says He loves us and sent His Son to die for us.

If limited atonement is true then God did not send His Son for all, and He does not will for all to be saved. This implies, to me, that people have no intrisic value at all. I believe in original sin, but I also believe that man has value to God-all men, because He created us. If He values us then His act of atonement would be for all to receive if we take up our cross and follow Him.

How cruel if someone is born amoung the unelect, and their family loves them, they live an admirable life of self-sacrifice, in human terms, genuinely care about other, make the world a better place, and die never having had a hope of eternal life. This seems to make it God’s choice and not their sin that condemns them. If God’s sovereign will to save me is based on His choice alone in spite of my sin then His sovereign will to damn another is based on His choice and not their sin.

This also seems to be contrary to the actions and some of the words of Christ. Christ acted as if all men had value to God. Was it just because He did not know who the elect were or is it because God loves and values all men? If He values all men then why limit atonement or the possibility of it?

Now, am I questioning Scripture? Predestination is certaintly there. Am I saying that Paul does not count what Christ said? I hope not, but where is the reconcilation?

Another thing, why was the language of predestination and Calvinism so believable to people in the 16 and 17 centuries and not so much today? Is it that knowledge of Scripture has declined or is it that the cultural context in which Christianity finds itself has an effect on it? Is it that words lose meaning and shift focus? Is it that at times God’s Holy Spirit emphasizes one aspect because it is being negelectd and then emphasizes another later on?

Do we need to find the language of our generation to express the gospel? I am not talking about watering down the gospel, only finding the right way to evangalize modern America. That’s another thing, what is the point of evangalizing? Is it like prayer, more impt for the practictioner that the one evangalized?

A Dream of Love

I dreamed a dream of love,
and in that dream
there were long evening walks
and serenades;
we picked wild roses
while moonbeams played
through your hair,
enchantment everywhere.

In that dream we flew,
just me and you,
up to the stars,
and down below,
in soft starlight’s glow,
the world was light.

There was no fear,
unlike here.