Friday, December 31, 2004

God and the Tsunami

I got a letter today from someone said he knows faith is not a rational emotion, but he is deeply bothered by why God appears to be so quiet in the face of disasters (I assumed he was thinking primarily of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean), especially when he was so active in the Old Testament. I thought I'd post my response, for what it's worth.


I actually think Christianity is rational, although it may not appear to be rational at times, just as some of the discoveries of science appear to be irrational, but they are only irrational from our - or, at least, my - limited perspective. For example, if I understand correctly, scientists believe that electrons circling in atoms can jump between lower and higher orbits without passing through the intervening space. To me that seems pretty irrational, but if it is indeed the case, I believe there is a rational explanation for it even if I don't know it, and even if I can't understand it.

Your concern seems to be that God is silent when it appears he should be active and vocal. You mention that in the Old Testament he was active.

First, about the Old Testament. Remember that the Old Testament miracles were spread out over thousands of years, and how many were there? Maybe a couple hundred recorded? And they were all in a very limited area - in and around Israel. So the likelihood of your seeing a miracle, even in Old Testament times, would be very unlikely.

But that still leaves the question of why God so often appears to be silent or inactive. Why doesn't he step in and save people, like the 100,000-plus who have lost their lives from the tsunami? Or the little girl who steps in front of a truck and is killed, or the child dying of cancer?

It seems it would be wonderful if everyone lived to a ripe old age. But suppose everybody did live to a ripe old age? Then wouldn't we be asking these questions...

- Why does God allow people to forget even the people they most love?
- Why does God let people's bodies become so frail?
- Why does God let us go blind?
- Why does God allow people to die so suddenly, without even a chance to say goodbye?
- Why does God allow people to die so slowly, suffering for months or years?
- Why does God allow some people live to 105 while others only get to live to 92?
- What kind of a joke is God playing, making people only to let them die?

In essence, I think what we object to is that life is imperfect, that it is unfair because some people are happier or live longer than others, and that it all ends in death. We want paradise back.

But this, I'm afraid, is the curse we live with. But also, perhaps God is speaking in this disaster. Maybe God wants to impress on our minds that this life is tenuous, that there are no guarantees here about health and long life, that we should not put our full hope in this world, but put a good portion of our focus on the next life, and maybe he wants it clear that we can't wait until 15-minutes before our God-guaranteed lifespan is about to end before turning to Jesus.

I don't know. But not only does the Bible make no firm guarantees of long life and good health, but there are places where it promises disaster. Sections of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation are examples.

Most of this is speculation, and I'm sure it doesn't answer your question fully. Like you, I want to understand as much as I can, but ultimately - Christian or non-Christian - you have to accept that there are questions for which you will not find a full answer. But at least, as a Christian, you can rest assured that a just and good answer really exists, because you believe in a just and good and all-knowing God.

God bless you

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Crucify the Christians

Two days before Christmas I was a bit bored. So much so that I decided to look at chat rooms, which I had never really bothered with before. I went to a Christian chat room on Yahoo at about the time a group of what I will politely call "non-Christians" decided to barge in.

I watched briefly as "crucify_the_christians" and "angrysatan666" and others cursed and insulted Christians, typed obscenities in clever ways to avoid the filters, described what they said were Jesus' sexual preferences, and so forth.

Then "crucify" said Christians are ignorant.

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

He said we are ignorant because God doesn't make sense and the Bible is just a book written by humans.

"You ever read the Bible, Cruz?" I asked.

Sure he had, he said. His parents made him read it, and he really liked the nasty parts in the Old Testament about the God of anger and Hell.

Not recalling anything about Hell in the Old Testament, I asked him where he had seen this.

He didn't know.

"Can you name five books of the Bible, Cruz?"

He couldn't name one.

"You don't know the Bible at all, do you Cruz?"

That, he said, wasn't his point. His point was that Christians need to question the Bible.

Hmmm. So, he had barely a clue about the Bible's contents, but was sure it was wrong and should be questioned.

"I'm lost, Cruz."

"Good," he replied, "That's where you should be. The point," he said, "is that there is no point."

Ah. So I should be at the point where there are pointless points.

We also talked about the existance of God. I asked if he knew any of the arguments for the existance of God.

"How would you reply to the cosmological argument for God, Cruz?"

He didn't know what it was until I explained it.

But that was okay by him. All he wanted, he said, was to make Christians realize that there is no answer, that "the answer is a question."

I tried to point out that he had been making statements of what he believed to be fact, so he was kind of like Christians (and everybody else) in that he believed specific things to be true.

No, he said, that was "just a manner of speaking."

O-kay. So now we have points that don't have points and questions that are answers and facts that are just a manner of speaking. All that and he's sure God doesn't exist and the Bible is wrong although he hadn't a clue about the arguments for and against God and had nothing but the vaguest notions of what is in the Bible.

I offered to pray for him, and he asked me not to. It sounded as if the idea made him a bit nervous.

"Don't waste your breath, it won't help."

"Sorry, Cruz. You hang around Christians long enough and somebody's bound to pray for you."

So I did.

What was interesting about this slam-bang exchange was that I began to like Cruz, and he's been on my mind and I've prayed for him several times since. While I wasn't going to put up with his junior philosopher nonsense, I felt I kind of got to know a lost kid, probably in high school, who would likely be very polite and friendly in person.

Hey Cruz! I'm still praying for you, buddy.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

I just got back from a Christmas Eve service. Singing the beautiful old hymns, a simple message of Christ's advent, everybody with candles lit. It was packed and it was wonderful!

I'll bet the two best attended church services during the year are Christmas and Easter, partly because they're special days, but I'll bet part of it is that it is pretty hard to focus on silly trivia on those days. Unless your church is totally dead, the focus is Christ both days; Christ's birth on Christmas, and Christ's resurrection on Easter.

Maybe churches would be fuller on other days if they focused on Christ then too!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Churching of America

I just read an excellent and encouraging book, called The Churching of America: 1776-1990, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark.

Basically, it's an historical examination of the church in America, and the book's messages are many. Perhaps the most encouraging message is that the church has actually been growing steadily throughout American history. And perhaps the most useful observation, or warning, is that the more worldly a denonimation becomes, the more dead it becomes. While that's hardly a surprise, it's good to see solid scholarship backing it up.

By "worldly" (my word, not theirs; they use sociological terms) I don't think the authors mean that it's a problem for the church to use modern techniques for communicating with people, but simply that a church will begin to wither if it begins to get fuzzy about its doctrine and about holy living.

The authors suggest that this toning down of the church's stands and soft pedaling of its harder doctrines is initially encouraged by wealthy church members and - interestingly - by the pastoral leadership of the church. Why? Because they both want to fit in with society. Then, one compromise leads to another and pretty soon you have a dying church.

I think this raises an interesting question: How much should the church try to identify with the world in order to win it? I suspect a lot of dying churches initially said they were trying to be more "relevant" to the world when they actually wanted to fit in better. I think a good test is this: Are we compromising our beliefs to fit in? If not, I think we're okay. If we are compromising, I think we're on a downward slope.

A few other interesting points:

The authors say that the downward trend for churches begins in the seminaries. For example, they note that the Methodist Church, after truly explosive growth, began to urge seminarians to study the latest liberal German theology. These students were then assigned to churches and spread their views there. Because the Methodist Church is hierarchal, the individual churches could not reject these pastors, so unhappy parishioners split off from - or were kicked out of - the church, some forming the basis of the Holiness Movement.

The Southern Baptists, on the other hand, do not have a hierarchal organization. Their seminaries went liberal too (and amazingly, had problems virtually from the start!), but unhappy Baptists could not be kicked out of their denomination because the denomination does not have that authority. So conservatives could stay and fight, and they have been fighting, and lately, winning. Also, Baptist churches can select anybody they please as pastor and kick them out if they please. For that reason the Southern Baptists have had more success in maintaining their faith, though it has been a continuing battle for their seminaries.

I take it from this that democracy is good at preserving orthodoxy, and unless a church strongly believes that hierarchy is God-ordained, it should lean toward democracy.

Another interesting observation from the book is that the truly explosive growth of the Baptists and Methodists came when they had unpaid or underpaid amateur preachers. Professional clergy, the authors argue, want to be treated as professionals, get good pay and be respected in the community. This, they argue, kind of nudges the church in a worldly direction. I have often thought that church jobs should pay less than the prevailing wage, for just this reason, so churches don't attract the uncommitted.

But what is truly amazing and exciting about this book is that it explodes the myth that church membership has been declining through the years in America. To the contrary, the authors say it has been on an almost stairstep upward path since colonial days, from 17 percent of the population being church members in 1776 to 60 percent being members in 1980.

The reason people think it has been declining, or has gone in waves, they say, is because they only look at the path of particular denominations, which do indeed rise and fall. But, they note, there are constant renewals that create new churches and revitalize faith. That is the most encouraging message of this book.

This is a very rich book, with a lot of insights, and I'm just touching the highlights here and not even doing them justice. I'm not totally convinced of everything the authors claim, and I am not even sure the authors are Christians, but their book is fascinating and well worth pondering. I highly recommend it.