Saturday, September 30, 2006

Frankincense and Computers

I was reading the book of Revelation in the Bible this morning and came upon the passage about the destruction of Babylon (Rev. 18:11-13), which says "the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her" because nobody is buying their products, which include gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth, citron wood, articles of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron, marble, plus cinnamon and spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses and carriages, and the "bodies and souls of men."

For a passage about a prophesy that hasn't yet come to pass, I thought that list of merchandise sounded rather outdated. What about automobiles and DVD players and computers and television sets and so forth? We have those things now, so presumably the people in the last days will also have those things, or some better equivalent. Didn't God know about modern inventions when this passage was written?

Yeah, sure he did! The problem was that my perspective - as I began thinking about it - was just too self-centered. The Bible was written not just for me but for people across a huge (in human terms) span of time, and the mention of television sets, for example, would be incomprehensible for people just decades ago, not to mention a thousand years ago.

But on the flip side, the mention of linen and olive oil and cattle and so forth is completely comprehensible to us, and while some of these products may be old fashioned to us, we still know what they are, and if we don't (what is citron wood, anyway?) well, we can look them up.

In other words, God made it so people in years past could understand this passage, and so people today and tomorrow can understand it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Downtown Los Angeles

I was called for jury duty last week and had to spend a couple days in downtown Los Angeles. During some of the breaks I wandered around town a bit and was reminded of why I almost never go into LA.

I don't mean to be harsh toward the city. It's a huge expanse and I know there are some lively and interesting areas of LA, but the Downtown (by which I mean the area in and around City Hall) is ratty and uninviting, though up the hill (on Hill Street) it is nice and uninviting. I mean, this is one of the most important cities in not just the United States, but in the world, and at its heart it is pretty much a disgrace.

If I may for a moment treat Downtown as a seperate entity from the rest of sprawling LA, I'd say it seems to be just a commuter zone. For example, I was looking for a place to have lunch and asked a woman on the street where I might find a restaurant.

"You like Mexican?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.

Well, she walked with me all the way to Olivera Street, about five blocks away. It was one of the few lively spots I found in the area, and the whole of Olivera Street is tiny, not to mention being quite a distance from all the big office buildings and across a grubby freeway overpass. (When I got back to the courtroom I heard another juror say that he went on what sounded like an even longer hike to find a restaurant.)

Anyway, as we were walking along this woman mentioned she lived in Corona.

Corona!? Ouch! What a nasty, long commute!

But that is the impression I got about the whole Downtown, that few if any of the office workers live nearby and that the place is probably pretty abandoned at night.

The area is covered with huge full-block buildings - mostly government - that you clearly don't go into unless you have business there. You can walk for long stretches and encounter no openings for people, just monolithic walls with the occasional vehicle service entrance and locked doorway decorated with yellowing sheets of newspaper. It seems that whatever life there is in Downtown is inside these huge buildings, but get out on the street and it's dead. Unless you're outside at the beginning or ending of the work day, or at noon, you can walk blocks and blocks and seldom pass more than a few people per block, most of them apparently homeless (and nothing against them; they provide what little life there is on the streets).

Don't get me wrong. Some of the buildings in the Downtown are beautiful (though others are gag ugly) with nice grass areas, and there are pretty parks - which appear generally abandoned, even at lunch time. So where are the people?

Well, one day at lunch I found quite a few of people - underground. There is a "mall" that is below ground level. It features a set of not-impressive-but-okay fast-food outlets, most of them apparently independent. The mall has a tiny sign at the top of the stairway going down, as if the city sort of reluctantly realizes that people need to eat but is embarassed that anything so crass as a commercial establishment should mar the solemn grandure of massed government buildings.

As I walked around Downtown I found weed and trash covered lots, places where it stinks (literally), blackened chewing gum spotting the sidewalks (all over), poor quality repairs that have been made to concrete sidewalks using asphalt, broken concrete that was unrepaired (even with asphalt), boarded up and run-down businesses. And yes, there are a few interesting spots (a seafood mall, for example), but the overall impression is one of sad, dirty dullness.

Someone will mention that if you go west a bit, up the hill, on the appropriately named Hill Street, there is where it becomes elegant. True, but it is a dreary sort of elegance. The Disney Concert Hall, the other concert facilities and the cathedral are attractive, but they are also just more block-square monoliths, though I did see some attractive condos or apartments being built (more on that in a moment).

One of the main points advanced by Jane Jacobs - a brilliant analyst of city life - is that what makes a big city lively and safe is mixed uses, which ensures there are always people on the streets, day and night. If you mix offices and stores and churches and residential and restaurants and movies and parks and other uses close together then you always have people coming and going, keeping an eye on the area and making it both safe and interesting.

And sadly, that is exactly what Downtown is not; even the new parts (at least those parts I saw). The area seems overplanned, as if the city said, "Let's clear off this whoooole block and put something really magnificent here!" And they do, and it's magnificent, and it's also lifeless.

These fine new buildings, that could contribute so much to the community, don't seem to do so because they don't have any other lively things going on around them. For example, I'd think that people who have just got out of a concert just might like to wander across the street and have a cup of coffee at a restaurant. Well, lotsa luck! From the looks of it, it's just drive in, drive out. A soulless commuterville.

In concluding I need to emphasize that I'm only speaking from my experience of a couple of days and I don't know the circumstances surrounding the development of Downtown LA, so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. Also, just today I spoke with a friend who said the city of LA is trying to address exactly the problems I saw, so perhaps those condos or apartments I saw being built up on Hill Street are part of the solution. Well, good. If there are people working to fix this problem, blessings upon them! I wish the city well. One of the great cities of the world should have a far livelier downtown than it now has.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

God Hardening Hearts

It has always troubled me a bit where the Bible says in Romans 9:18 that God "hardens whom he wants to harden."

Why then, I ask - as Romans 9:19 asks - does "God still blame us? For who resists his will?"

Paul explains that the potter has the right to do with the clay whatever he wants, and that is certainly true. God is the potter and we are the clay, and I am able to accept that God is all-wise and if he hardens the hearts of some, well, I don't get it, but he knows best.

But in rereading Romans I noticed something else, something that had eluded me before.

A couple chapters further on, in Romans 11:25, it says that "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved."

That "until" struck me. The hardening in the case of Israel was not permanent. It is only for a time, and then "all Israel will be saved."

I thought back to Romans 9 with this in mind, and wondered if the hardening spoken of there might also a temporary measure used by God for some specific purpose. And I wonder if it may be the case most of the time that there are times when God temporarily hardens the hearts of people, but then when his purpose is accomplished he removes that hardening to allow them to be receptive to his love.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pick Your Battles

I've always regarded Paul, the author of a good chunk of the New Testament, as an uncompromising proclaimer of truth and opponent of error, but during a recent reading of the Book of Romans, rather to my surprise, I noticed an important caveat that hadn't sunk in before - that there are some errors that we shouldn't oppose.

The passage that hit me - if you care to follow along - is the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of Romans, but specifically, Romans 14:14, where Paul writes: "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean."

In the first part of this verse Paul makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with eating any kind of food. Okay, that's the truth-proclaiming Paul I know so well. So, in the second part of the verse, I would have expected him to tell the believers to correct those who mistakenly believe you shouldn't eat meat.

But he doesn't!

Instead, he essentially says that some errors are harmless and to leave people in their errors because it is far more important that those people not violate their consciences.

So, if people believe, for example, that meat is out-of-bounds (14:21) or that one day is more sacred than another (14:5) or that you shouldn't drink wine (14:21)... well, so what!? Yes, they're wrong, but it just doesn't matter!

In fact, Paul goes further and even urges other believers to not eat meat if it's going to throw the lives of those who don't believe in eating meat into a tizzy.

So Paul is actually saying we should accomodate some types of error!


While there are indeed core issues that believers should stand up for firmly - as Paul does - there are also a slew of peripheral issues that just aren't worth fighting about and damaging people's faith about and alienating people about and upsetting people about and causing division about, even when we ab-so-lutely know the truth about those issues.

So, pick your battles... wisely.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Justice Versus Forgiveness

In reading some sermons by Martin Luther I came upon a concept I hadn't considered before.

Luther draws a distinction between the duties of the Christian as an individual and the duties of the Christian (or non-Christian) as a civil authority.

The distinction is that the Christian as an individual should always forgive and the civil authority should never forgive, but only exercise justice.

Not forgive? But that's at the very heart of Christianity!

But Luther points to Romans 13, which says the civil authority "does not bear the sword for nothing." And he also refers to Jesus distinction between two realms, the realm of civil authority and the realm of God's authority ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" - Matt 22:21).

The civil authority's task, Luther says, is to punish criminals to maintain order and justice (not, by the way, to impose Caesar's authority on God's realm or vice versa). In the pursuit of that job the magistrate is to punish, not to forgive. In fact, the "sword" reference in Matthew 22 suggests that the civil authorities may also make use of the death penalty.

I find Luther's arguments mostly persuasive. Forgiveness, it seems, is only valid between the injured party and the injurer. So, if Joe hurts Sam, Sam can forgive Joe, while Robert, who is uninvolved, cannot forgive Joe for an injury to Sam.

But a judge is supposed to be an uninvolved person, a "Robert." Therefore, while a judge (for example) can take all extenuating circumstances into consideration - such as a killer being severely provoked, for example, or that the injury is absurdly small (your walking on someone else's grass) - and can properly adjust any judgment accordingly, the judge can't just forgive criminal behavior. Forgiveness is the task of the injured party alone; enforcing justice is the task of the civil authorities, even if those in authority are Christians.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Thoughts on the Trinity

I got a letter a while ago asking me to give a clearer presentation of the triune nature of God because my paraphrase of Anselm's hypothesis was a bit obscure. Well, I'm not sure that is something I can do any better, but the letter got me thinking about whether there is anything more I can say about the topic. And, come to think of it, there are a few things I'd like to add.

First, I'd like to take care of a very silly idea. I think there are some people who believe that the idea of the Trinity was conjured up out of whole cloth by the church for some nefarious reason. This is pure nonsense. I mean, what possible purpose would be served by that? Could it be to make the idea of God more explicable to people, thereby making the church more appealing to people?

Ha! Anybody who thinks the doctrine of the Trinity makes things easier to understand obviously has no clue what it is. I mean, come on! The doctrine is that God is one essence, but three persons, each of whom is fully God. That's supposed to be easy to understand? I don't think so!

No, Christians do not hold this view because it makes God easier to explain, for the very simple reason that it makes God harder to explain. The church believes this for the same reason scientists hold their views - the evidence supports it. The scientist's source of evidence is the environment; the Christian's is the Bible.

But perhaps it was just some goofy idea that crept in somehow and eventually just kind of became set, like concrete, as a doctrine.

That's really hard to accept. Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churchs accepted (and accept) the doctrine, and when the Protestant Church broke away from the Roman church it threw out parts of Roman Catholic doctrine that it believed didn't reflect the Bible, but it held on to the difficult doctrine of the Trinity.

Why? Well, it certainly wasn't because the uncompromising Luther and Calvin and Zwingli had suddenly decided not to upset the Roman Catholic Church. No, they accepted the Trinity because they saw it in the Bible.

Okay, on to my main point.

At the edges of human perception things get very weird.

On a small scale, subatomic particles act in ways that - at least to me - are inexplicable, and on the grand scale the universe has attributes that are equally inexplicable. For example, if the universe is - in a sense - an expanding ball, what is on the outside of that ball? My mind screams that it's gotta be open space, but if I'm understanding the explanations, there's not even that. Very weird.

Then what is God like, who is in many ways beyond the edges of our perception?

I can only imagine that in many ways he is utterly beyond our comprehension. So if the environment we are a part of is so difficult for us to understand, why in the world should we imagine that the fullness of God should be easily understood by a fifth grade math student - or a PhD for that matter?

Further, the concept of the Trinity revolves around numbers (one and three), but the thing to remember is that God created numbers and he is not limited by the numbers he made. For example, if someone were to look at the Mona Lisa painting and try to draw conclusions about its creator, Michelangelo, that person might draw some reasonable inferences, but he would be stretching waaaay too far if he concluded that Michelangelo was flat, or that he always wore an enigmatic smile. God is no more limited by his creation than Michelangelo was limited by the attributes of the Mona Lisa.

So because God is so far beyond our understanding and beyond all the laws that govern our universe, the only way to know much about him is to take him at his word, so if you accept that the Bible is God's word to people, that means believing what the Bible says about his nature even if it is as mysterious to you as the curvature of 3D space is to me.

To wrap this up, I'd like to imagine someone asking me how God can be one essence and yet be three distinct persons. I think I would respond with some questions of my own:

Do you believe God is just?


Do you believe God is loving?


Do you believe God is creative?

Of course!

Alright. Are justice, love and creativity just different names for the same thing?

Well... no. They may be related, but I wouldn't say they are the same.

Okay. What percentage of God is just?

Well, all of him, of course! One hundred percent.

How about loving and creative? What percentage of God is loving and what percentage of God is creative?

All of God is loving and all of God is creative!

Okay, but how can justice, love and creativity (since they are not just different names for the same thing) each make up 100 percent of God? That comes to 300 percent, not 100 percent.

Uhh, I think you're just being silly.

Perhaps I am, but you can see that your view is not really much different from the Christian view of the Trinity. One essence; three attributes, each of which is God in His entirety.

Okay, I don't pretend that this imagined conversation explains the Trinity, but I do think it shows that the philosophical difficulty presented by the Trinity is not a problem unique to Christians. My point with this whole article is simply to say that God is so far beyond what we are capable of imagining that it makes the best sense - if we are Christians and accept the Bible as authoritative - to simply look at the evidence in the Bible and ask ourselves what it teaches about God, and then take God at his word.