Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Rival Conceptions of God & One Shocking Alternative

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. See, I have given you authority…over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10: 17-20). These astounding words spoken by Jesus in the midst of his Galilean ministry are like a declaration of war by a King over his adversary; a King who is determined to take back what was unjustly taken from him.  Was Jesus deceived, or was he divine?  Is there an Evil Power that we must confront as Jesus obviously did...or is evil an illusion, the spiritualization of anti-social behavior?  There is nothing which reveals the similarities and differences between worldviews and philosophies more than the problem of evil…and our dreams of justice, goodness, and setting the world right. We can divide the rival conceptions of God into roughly three groups…those who believe that nothing is God, those who believe that everything is God, and those who believe that God is God (the One who made everything out of nothing). 

(i) First, there are those who believe that nothing is God (atheism). The philosophy of atheism, or nihilism is the philosophy of nothing…that nothing and meaninglessness is the destiny of everything; that evil is simply our subjective experience of random events and the blind forces of nature. Listen to Jose Martinez, a taxi driver with a nihilistic outlook: "We're here to die, just live and die...Life is a big fake.  nobody gives a damn.  You're rich or you're poor.  You're here, you're gone....Life is nothing"  (Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God).  C. S. Lewis explains in his Mere Christianity that this was his position for many years…and it was the experience of evil and injustice that made it the most difficult for him to believe in God (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 1).

But then Lewis was struck by a thunderbolt. His argument against God was that this world seemed so cruel and unjust, and therefore meaningless. But to say that this whole world was meaningless, he had to be comparing it with something -- something meaningful and good. Where did this idea come from? If you see a line that looks crooked, it’s because you are comparing it with the picture of a straight line. If you feel “wet” when you dive into the pool, it’s because you know what it’s like to feel dry. As Lewis points out, a fish never feels “wet”!  If the world seems unjust, cruel, and meaningless, it’s because you have in your mind a picture of something good, pure, and meaningful.

To put it another way, if the world seems “dark” it is only because you have seen the light. John writes, “This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3: 19). The atheist denies the light (in a manner of speaking) -- a world of meaning and purpose and real goodness. But if the world is simply dark -- cruel, unjust, and therefore meaningless, how did we come to know that with any meaningful certainty? Where did we get the light to see that we were in the dark? You can’t even say the words “This world has no meaning” without assuming that you just said something meaningful. See what I mean? It would appear that atheism is too simple...like a man who tries to prove there are no proofs...or tries to reason that the world is irrational.   Beyond this, there are terrible consequences to the atheistic worldview (take, for example, 20th century dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao; as well as contemporary studies of evil like that of psychologist  M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie).

Scripture, tells us where the light of meaning and goodness comes from: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). I have a ring on my finger that says, “Let there be light,” the seal of the University of California, and it refers to the light of understanding and knowledge; but this is a 3000 year old quote from Genesis 1:3 (ironically). God is the source of our reason and understanding…God is our light! We live in a God-illumined world, and it is by God’s light that we see clearly enough to know that some things have gone terribly wrong; that we were made for a good and just world, a meaningful world, a heavenly world.  

(ii) Secondly, there are those who believe that everything is God (pantheism): the sky is God, the mountains are God, the sea is God, the stars are God, you and I are part of an emerging 'God consciousness;' but this is the key point: if you take away the universe, you take away God too. Those who look at the universe in this way tend to feel that good and bad are just different ways of looking at a single reality. If you are confronted with a cancer or with terrible poverty and disease in Haiti – a pantheist would say, “Looking at this from one point of view, it looks pretty bad…but if you could see it from the divine point of view you would realize that this also is God" (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 1).

(iii) Now the Christian and others who believe that God is God, and created this world but is separate from it would say (to quote C. S. Lewis) ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’  According to Genesis 1-2, God created the world good, some parts of it have gone bad, contrary to his will…and God insists that they be put right again. Just because God permits evil and suffering does not mean that God wills or desires it. “This is the message we have heard from him….that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1: 5). With the responsibility of growing up into adulthood that we have increasing freedom…and with that freedom we must decide for ourselves what rules, what values, what principles we will live by. Our choices will sometimes cause us or others pain…but this is the price of freedom and growth.

Now we may resent (or even doubt) a God who permits suffering, but consider this: a universe in which God intervened and prevented anything “harmful” from happening, would be a puppeteer’s world where every action and every event was pre-determined and nothing “real” ever happened…and where we never had to grow up into spiritual maturity. In such a universe, we could neither truly love one another…nor could we genuinely love God. This God-ordained freedom to love or to hurt, as far as Christians are concerned not only includes human beings…but superhuman beings…which leads me to my next point in this discussion of God and evil, and that is...the Invasion (see Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 2).

There is a version of Christianity that’s popular today which Lewis calls “Christianity and Water.” It’s Christianity without all that difficult stuff about sin, the devil and hell. It’s the kind of Christianity that 'over-accentuates the positive' and says (with apologies to Ray Stevens) “Everything is beautiful in its own way.”  Although I love the lyrics of that song....the title is, strictly speaking, not true. Everything is not beautiful! The holocaust was not beautiful. Poverty and disease is not beautiful. Child abuse is not beautiful. Graft and gov’t corruption are not beautiful. Betrayal and dishonesty are not beautiful…and the denial of evil is not beautiful either…it is tragic. 

One of the most obvious facts about the Bible is its recognition of evil. It takes evil seriously…but it does not fear the triumph of evil. The Bible does not picture evil as a power that is equal to but opposite of the good. How could it? Evil is a second rate power. It gets all of its raw material from what is good. There is nothing that is evil for evil’s sake. Evil is always spoiled goodness. Take the scandal in the city of Bell here in Los Angeles county. The city leaders there have conspired to cheat their citizens out of hundreds of thousands of dollars…why? To enrich themselves…to accumulate money, pleasure, power, and security. But as Lewis points out, money, pleasure, power, and security are not bad things. They are actually good things. Money and power can be used for tremendous good. Pleasure is something our bodies and spirits were designed for. To want safety and security for our families is reasonable and good. The badness of what happened in the city of Bell is that govt’ leaders were pursuing these basically good things in a corrupt way, in a way that did not benefit anyone but themselves and actually hurt their citizens.

Pausing in the midst of his own ministry in which he was confronting evil, Jesus said something extraordinary, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. See, I have given you authority…over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10: 17-20). There is a 2000 year old Christian tradition that Satan is a fallen angel…a superhuman spirit that has gone wrong, and it is based in part on this passage; and on the fact that evil is a parasite, that evil is always spoiled goodness. That should give us pause…because we know from history and our own experience, that every talent we possess, all the powers of our mind and will and body, and all our creativity and cleverness can be used for good…or in the service of evil. It should come as no surprise then, that there might be spiritual beings, superhuman spirits that have gone wrong too; that we live in a corner of the universe engaged in civil war and that we are, to use Lewis’ phrase, “Enemy-occupied territory" -- a phrase that was particularly meaningful to Lewis' British listeners as they endured the nightly air raid sirens, and Nazi buzz bombs.

There is a personal power of evil in this world…and (in Lewis’ words) Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed (in disguise) and is calling us to join him in a divine conspiracy to sabotage the enemy’s stronghold. Has it ever occurred to you that there may be a reason why civilizations rise and fall, why terrific energy is expended and tremendous institutions are built…and advances made in art, architecture, language, science, philosophy…but then sooner or later they all come crashing down? Has it ever occurred to you that this world has been running on the wrong fuel (as Lewis would say) that we’ve become disconnected from the One who made us?  John says, that “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8); and if Jesus’ purpose is to break Satan’s hold on this world, should we be shocked that we encounter resistance as his followers? Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you find it so difficult to rise up in the morning to go to church or to read the Bible may be more than simple fatigue, laziness, or doubt; that there is Someone who doesn’t want you here; who doesn’t want you to know the King; or to be faithful to your family, or to open up your mouth about Jesus with your co-worker, or to get involved with people in need?  It would be hopeless…if it were not for what Lewis called, The Shocking Alternative (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 3)....

Late in the evening on September 19, 1931, Lewis was having a conversation with J.R.R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about the Christian faith. He uses the analogy of a chess game, and says in his biography that this was the night in which God checkmated him (Surprised by Joy, ch. IV). Three days later, Lewis was riding on a motorcycle with his brother Warren to the Whipsnade Zoo: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Four truths that he and his friends discussed were important in his conversion…

First, the gift of conscience…the voice that calls out to us from childhood to do right and flee from what is evil, the Moral Law that is consistently seen in different times and cultures (see Mere Christianity, Book I, Romans 2: 12-16, and my recent blog, A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe).

Secondly, that God has given us good dreams…stories in every culture that carry within them pictures of God’s sacrificial love and saving grace  One of my favorites is alluded to by Lewis himself...a citation I ran across as a Classical Studies major in college.  Plato, writing 500 years before Christ answers the question, “How would one recognize the truly just man?” Plato says that he would be revealed in this way: by how he responds to the greatest injustice; for he is that man “who though doing no wrong [bears] the repute of the greatest injustice…enduring the lash, the rack, chains…and finally, after every extremity of suffering, [is] crucified” (Republic IIe.362).  Who is this just man whom Plato dreams of, this otherworldly man who returns evil with good, even to the point of laying down his life? Is it not the Christ he speaks of, though not knowing him?  Other examples abound...but I urge you to read about the fascinating redemptive keys found in primitive cultures by Canadian missionary Don Richardson (Peace Child, and Eternity in Their Hearts).

Thirdly Lewis was struck by the history of a particular people, the Jews, a people through whom God revealed in a unique way what kind of God he was and the things he cared about…and the Hebrew scriptures tell their astounding story.  And finally, the phenomenon of Jesus…that from among those Jews there emerged the “Shocking Alternative” to all that is unjust, cruel, ungodly and inhumane in this world. The gospels tell us his story… of a man who is not only a man, but a man who says and does all the things we would expect God to say and do, including rise from the dead (something Lewis became convinced there was very good historical evidence for). Here was a man who spoke like no man spoke…“He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14: 9) and “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8: 56-58) and who says to paralytics, tax collectors and prostitutes, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5: 20-21)  He spoke as though (1) He was the God who created this world out of nothing, (2) as though it was His world that had become Enemy-occupied territory, overrun by evil; (3) and as though He was the rightful King who planned to take it back!

Such a man must either be the most arrogant and narcissistic man who ever lived, certifiably insane…or exactly who he said he was…the Son of God. But could a madman or a deceptive liar have inspired the devotion of scientists from Kepler to Collins, the conversion of a slave trader like John Newton, musical genius from J.S. Bach to Sting, the compassion of Mother Theresa, the moral clarity of Bishop Desmond Tutu, and visionaries like Tolkien and Lewis, or the spiritual passion of a Billy Graham? It doesn’t seem likely…but then what?

There is a well known passage in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Peter, Susan, and Edmund have entered Narnia through a magic wardrobe and are preparing to meet Aslan, the Christ-figure of these brilliant children's stories. Mr. Beaver announces that “Aslan is on the move....And you’ll be meeting him soon.” Ooh…” said Susan. “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” Peter adds, “I’m longing to meet him…even if I do feel frightened” “That’s right, Son of Adam” said Mr. Beaver, “And so you shall.”  Friends, if you want to meet the King, if you’re longing to meet him more than playing it safe, if your longing to know his goodness and power, and to join the ranks of his forever followers. Just tell him today…and so you shall!"

Jesus, we confess here and now that you are the Rightful King who has landed in this Enemy-occupied world, that you have come to destroy the works of the devil, and to reclaim that which is yours by divine right; that you are both Son of God and Son of Man…that your Spirit will prevail over us, that you bring healing to the sick, forgiveness to the sinner, blessing to your children, and life to the dead.  Hear our prayers, cleanse our hearts, and make us your very own -- to the glory of God the Father.  Amen. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe

What did you dream about this week? On this anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many are dreaming about peace, the end of terror, war, and the triumph of good. When C. S. Lewis first delivered the BBC radio talks that he would later publish as Mere Christianity, it was the height of WWII when millions dreamed about the victory of good over evil and a world set right. Could this desire for justice, decency and fairness itself be a clue to life’s meaning? This is what C. S. Lewis wanted to know…from the trenches of the First World War where he fought and was wounded…to the halls of Oxford where he began teaching English and meeting with men like J.R.R. Tolkien to discuss writing and the deepest questions of life. What Lewis discovered moved this brilliant professor from atheism to Christianity: a surprising clue to life's meaning that is confirmed in Scripture as well.

There is a Clue to life’s meaning: The Law of Human Nature. The first time we had a glimpse of what Lewis refers to as the Law of Human Nature, otherwise known as the Moral Law, may have been  in our childhood bedroom while quarreling with our brother or sister, or in the cafeteria at lunch when someone cut in front of us in line. We said things like "That's not fair!" or "How would you like it if I did that to you?" Or perhaps it was the relief we felt when we finally told our parents the truth.  The Law of Human  Nature, or the Moral Law, is the voice that calls us away from what is hurtful, selfish, and cruel, and toward that which is just, fair, honest, and good...but how difficult it is to follow that voice.

When we think about the millions who died in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps, we ask ourselves, “How could that happen? Or How can we stop this from happening again?” But as N.T. Wright points out in his book, Simply Christian, we can’t seem to stop it…from the more than ten thousand Muslim Serbs killed under the direction of Slobodan Milosovic in 1992; to the genocide that took place in Rwanda in1994, to the thousands who have died in the Darfur region of Sudan. Oh yes, we clearly saw the evil of South African apartheid; but only because we remembered the long history of slavery in our own country, and the mistreatment of African and Native Americans. Paul stated a powerful truth when he said in Rom. 7:21, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” We know what we ought to do…but we do not or cannot seem to do it…or so it seems.

Yes, the Moral Law is real…it’s truth echoes like a voice inside each one of us, and it’s message is timeless and universal. Paul in Rom. 2: 14-15 points out that this “law” is something the Gentiles (i.e., those who have never heard of the Jewish law) understand “by nature.” E. Peterson translates the same verse this way: “When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct [the Greek word here means 'nature'] they confirm its truth…God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation.  There is something deep within [us] that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong”(Rom. 2: 14-15 / E. Peterson).  Lewis was fascinated by the historical "illustrations" of this truth, the reality of the Moral Law, that can be found in the writings of ancient civilizations....

The Book of Leviticus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Ancient Egyptian confession of a righteous soul declares, “I have not brought misery upon my fellows…I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked.” A Babylonian text says, “Slander not…[and] Whoever meditates oppression, his dwelling is overturned.” An Australian Aborigines tribe carried around a woman crippled from birth until her death at age sixty six. “They never desert the sick” said an observer. A Hindu writing says, “Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded.” and Confucius says, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you” (from C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Appendix). Where does this inner voice, this moral conscience come from…a voice that cries out for justice, and fairness and a world that is set right…a voice that calls us to live in a way we know we ought to, but don’t?

There is a Power behind the Law: A ‘Something’ or ‘Someone.’ It should come as no surprise that there has been a good deal of effort focused on trying to explain away this voice, this Law of Human Nature.  One idea is that it is simply our instincts. But here is the problem with that idea, and Lewis points it out. We have all kinds of instincts; an instinct to protect our family or tribe – an instinct for self preservation, for sex, for food and so forth. But that’s not where the Moral Law comes in…it’s when we have to choose between obeying one instinct or another; between saving our own lives, or risking our lives to help someone else; between satisfying our drive for sexual pleasure or protecting someone else’s dignity that we feel the law at work, and hear the voice urging us to do what is right.

Another way of explaining the Moral Law is to say that it is nothing more than doing what benefits us personally. But hold on, is it not true that doing the right thing is often more costly than beneficial? We could cheat and get a better grade, but we don't (partially out of fear that we may be caught) but also because an inner voice says that it is simply wrong. We could lie but choose to tell the truth despite the consequences; and when we don’t obey that law, we have a sense that we have failed to do something we should have or should not have done.

But if this law cannot be explained as "instinct" or the desire to "benefit" personally, where does this voice come from? Lewis, like Paul, suggests that the fact that “we do not exist on our own” (that each of us, along with the entire universe obviously depends upon something else for its origin and life) along with the fact of the moral law (a voice calling us to do right and turn from evil), are sign posts pointing us to 'Something' or 'Someone' beyond the world that we can see and touch and taste and feel. Listen to the words of Paul… For “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). And what we may conclude from this voice, this law that operates within us, across time and culture, urging us toward a particular kind of action is this: that 'Something' or 'Someone' is not merely ‘an unblinking cosmic stare’ -- but actually cares about justice, about goodness, and about what is right!

Yesterday, my family and I were at the beach.  It was a cloudy day, with high surf.  Not a great day to be swimming with small children.  The only thing swimming out in that rough water was a spectacular school of dolphins.  As for us humans, it was back on shore near the lifeguard tower where the red flag was waving in the breeze.  The red flag is meant to alert swimmers of dangerous surf and rip tides.  Rip tides are powerful undercurrents that can pull a swimmer out into deep water; and even cause drownings.  It's not unusual, though, for swimmers to ignore these warning flags and venture out anyway, which is why lifeguards must keep a close watch.  Turning your back on the ocean even for a moment, on days like this, can be deadly.  Now I know I'm stating the obvious when I say that those red flags are a lot like our moral conscience.  Many of us, given the same stormy conditions and dangerous curents, will see the warning signs and sense that 'Something' or 'Someone' is waving us back to shore.  That common human experience of 'danger' or 'hesitation' is an experience that we can be thankful for, a sign that points us to the Mind behind this universe, and the things this Creator finds important.  On the other hand, knowing what the Power behind this universe 'cares about' is a sobering thought when we consider own own actual behavior...

There is Cause to Be Uneasy. We have broken the Law, and continue to do so. What we’ve been saying thus far is that there is a Moral Law, a voice that is calling out to us…urging us to do justice, love mercy, and treat people as we would want to be treated. Secondly, we’ve been suggesting that there is a Power behind this Law…a 'Something,' or more likely, a 'Someone,' a Mind that has a bigger plan for us than we may want to admit, a Someone who cares about goodness and setting things right...Someone who is flying the warning flag and waving us back to shore when we're indangering ourselves or indangering others with our behavior.

Now here is the unnerving thing…if this is true, then much of what we do, or often fail to do, must be very displeasing to the One behind all this. In fact, much of human history must grieve, must sadden, must pain the One who made us. Paul puts it simply in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That this world has suffered under evil is as obvious as anything we know. In the Book of Genesis, the account of Creation, we read that "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’" (Genesis 2: 15-17). Without going into a detailed analysis of this incredible passage, let us simply say this. The Genesis account describes the painful experience of our freely chosen disobedience…how much it grieves God’s heart, and how deadly it will prove to be to us personally, relationally, ecologically, and spiritually.

How many times have you said to yourself…if only I could live that day over again… if only I could take those words back again… if only I could have just one more chance to do it right…if only I had been more honest, if only I had kept my promise, if only I had taken a stand, if only I hadn’t made that phone call, if only I hadn’t lied, if only I hadn’t insulted that person, if only I had finally said, “I’m sorry.” If only…if only…if only. But the more disturbing truth is that we have not only offended our family members, and our friends and co-workers and classmates…we have hurt and offended the One who cares so much about goodness and justice and setting this world right.

Unless we understand this…we can’t understand the good news either. C. S. Lewis says in his Mere Christianity, “Of course I agree that the Christian religion is in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort, but it does not begin in comfort. It begins in…dismay.” There is a clue to life’s meaning – the Moral Law. There is a Power behind the law – Something or Someone. There is Cause to be uneasy: because we have broken that law.

Did you know that following WWI, which was supposed to be the war to end all wars there have been, to date, 97 more wars? Yes, I counted them. Yesterday, on the way to the beach, our family drove by the thousands of flags that were displayed above Pepperdine University, a testimony to the thousands of lives that were lost in the terrible terrorist attacks on 9/11 nine years ago…and a reminder too of the thousands who died after that in continuing conflict and war. Every one of those flags was a testimony to the cry in our hearts for justice, for goodness, for a world set right again.

Now keeping all this in mind, I found a fascinating article about a University of Wisconsin study done in 2007 when 100,000 wishes from people from around the world, printed on confetti and dropped from the sky during the famous New Year’s Eve “ball drop” in 2007 were catalogued and analyzed. Here is what they found. The #1 wish worldwide, regardless of country or nationality was not financial stability, was not getting into college, was not getting more sex, was not finding that true love. No, the #1 wish of people worldwide was….PEACE ON EARTH! What the Bible calls "shalom" -- a right relationship with God, with other people, and with the earth.  Shalom!  Peace on Earth! It's what we hunger for. Incredible isn’t it? If anyone looked at our planet and its history from some distant alien world, they would have to come to a very different conclusion about our true desires and dreams…but they wouldn’t be able to see in our hearts; where the law is at work, where the voice is heard, the voice that is calling us to turn back, to do justice, love kindness, put things right again.

But here is the good news: the dreams we all seem to be having for peace on earth, for justice and putting the world to rights…are not just wish dreams in the night bubbling up from our subconscious, they are the voice of an unwavering God who actually wants us to live in such a way that world peace, God’s shalom, is possible – and if Christians are right – that voice became human in Y’shua Jesus and did what had to be done to bring it about -- God’s peace, forever and ever -- one life at a time.

O God, there is a passion in us for justice and fairness, for making right the things that are wrong.  There is a voice calling us to live the way we know we ought to, and condemning that which we know can only lead to more hatred, violence, abuse and destruction.  Yet for all our best efforts, we find that we continue to fall far short of our best aspirations and that when we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.  Can this broken world be rescued?  Can we be rescued?  We’ve heard today that the voice calling to us is the voice of God, and that this voice became human and did what had to be done to finally bring things right.  Not all of us here may be sure about this yet, but we pray - beginning right now – that you would reveal yourself to each of us in a way that we can truly understand and believe. Amen.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. I. 1-5
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, Ch. 1