“…there is actually no such thing as atheism… Everybody worships…”

David Foster WallaceI’ve been trying to read through Infinite Jest, David’s Foster Wallace’s influential novel.  (I say trying because it’s nearly 1000 pages and, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make it through.)  The insights he had though, before his tragic suicide, were very important for understanding ourselves and our faith or lack thereof.

Wallace was not a person of faith.  But he many helpful things to say about the nature of faith.  Maybe most importantly, is that he contends that is no such thing as “no faith”.  This may be surprising because we’re hearing about “nones” all the time, those who claim to have no faith or religious beliefs.  We may meet people who say they don’t believe in God or say they are atheist.

But is there really such a thing?  Wallace pushes back on supposed lack of belief.  In an influential commencement address he challenged the grads to look at what they truly worship in their lives.  Far from being godless, we all have ‘gods’ – those things that we choose to place our hope in and worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.  

(spoken at Kenyon College commencement, 2006 – whole thing here)

So everyone worships.  Everyone casts their trust, hope, desire onto something.  The only question is what it is.  In our secular age, some of us may think we’re free but that’s where Wallace’s warning is so important.  If we have no faith (supposedly), what we worship will be undetected by us and we won’t even realize.

I don’t know the state of Wallace’s faith or understanding of God.  The challenge he offers, though, is important for those who have faith or claim no faith.  In a certain sense, we’ve all got faith.  IT’s just a matter of what (or who) we have it in.  We’ll slip into worship of money, power, success, intellect, sex – and we’ll always risk being destroyed by them.  There is an alternative.  To worship some thing that does not destroy but will give us new life.  A True God.

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Strider Takes Down Moral Relativism

"You mean to tell me that you don't believe in any transcendent moral order?  Not even an Orc would believe something like that."

“You mean to tell me that you don’t believe in any transcendent moral order?  Not even an Orc would believe something like that.”

I’ve been re-reading The Lord Of The Rings.  It occurs to me that for such an incredibly popular story it contains some very unfashionable views.  For example, the good is attractive and appealing, whereas evil is ugly and repugnant.  Being in the age of anti-heroes as we are, just pause and consider how unique this is today.

But nowhere is LOTR more unfashionable than in its unembarrassed belief in an objective moral order. There is real truth, beauty, and goodness.  These are not assigned by us but only discovered and lived for.  In our culture today this is not recognized easily. Aragorn, in an amazing moment of dialogue, utterly rejects the idea that good and evil, right and wrong can be culturally or individually determined.  *he’s so wise, he should be king someday or something*

Eomer, in a moment of confusion and uncertainty given the shifting nature of his world, asks:  How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’  

Aragorn replies:  ‘As he ever has judged’, said Aragorn.  ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.  It is a man’s part to discern them, as much as in the Golden Wood and in his own house.’*

Did you see the wisdom?  Whatever the times, or culture, good and evil are what they have always been.  It is not ours to make up or determine right and wrong but to discern and discover them.  I only wish this insight was as popular today as the LOTR movies have been.

*  The Two Towers, chapter 2.

Got time for some Eugene Peterson?

In our day, information comes so quickly in blog posts and sound bites.  But real reflection takes a long time.  No one has reflected longer about Church, calling, and the pastoral vocation than Eugene Peterson.  In these four 1991 lectures, from Acadia Divinity School, Peterson reflects in a way that is convicting, inspiring, and deeply personal.

Watch.  But it will take some time.

 

 

 

 

* Best as I can tell, these 1991 lectures form the basis of Peterson’s book Under the Unpredictable Plant (1994) which I had to read in seminary.

Hey Losers!

Look into my eyes, not at my tie!

Look into my eyes, not at my tie!

“Every true church of Christ is a manifestation of the new people of God, composed of citizens of heaven, not of devout people forming their elite club… He (Christ) alone can build it, and He chooses for his living stones not many wise, powerful, or wealthy. It is composed of losers – those who have lost everything for Christ’s sake, but have found everything in him.”   Edmund Clowney, The Church.

We’re all losers, but that’s a good thing!  “I count all things loss…”

Need Some Christmas Reading? How about an oldie but a goodie?

C S Lewis once gave some great advice on reading.  It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  He explained that only reading contemporary books robs us of the perspective that previous centuries can provide.  Old books help us to avoid the blind spots of our present age.  In light of that, I’d like to recommend an old book.  An old, old one.

This guy hated false teaching almost as much as he hated razors.

This guy hated false teaching almost as much as he hated razors.

It is On The Incarnation, written by Athanasius in the 4th century.  Now before you think that this book isn’t for you, consider that it is one of the most influential books in Christian history.  On The Incarnation is also well known because of its famous introduction which was written in the 20th century.  It is also available online here.  Athanasius lived at a time when many people did not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God who had come in the flesh.  Athanasius stood against the theological/philosophical/cultural trends of his time to argue that Jesus was indeed God in the flesh.  After the Bible itself, his writing has been most influential for preserving this precious truth.  

So why should you read an old, old book?  (If you’re in The King’s Fellowship I’ve got a copy for you.  Free.)

1)  It’s short.  Old books are usually shorter than contemporary ones (this one’s only 60 pages or so).  Our ancient friends apparently didn’t feel the need to go on and on.

2)  It’s not Max Lucado but it’s surprisingly readable.  Reading a book from 1,700 years ago is not as tough as you might think.  If you’ve never challenged yourself in your reading, why not try now?  If you can understand the Bible you can work through this small masterpiece.  The diamonds here are worth digging for…

3)  It’s Christmas-y.  Kind of.  I re-read this every December.  It is, in essence, about how Baby Jesus matters to Crucified Jesus.  If there is too much consumerism and family tension for you, maybe you can let yourself be reminded of what the greatest gift of the season is.

4)  It is so relevant.  Athanasius reminds us that we don’t need to be afraid of going against our times.  He also reminds us that the first truths about Christian faith are the most profound.  For him, that God had come into the world to save the lost.  Reading him reminds us that we don’t need to go along with the current of our times.

Lewis was right about old books.  And where was it that he made his famous observation about old books?  In his famous introduction to On The Incarnation of course!  His introduction to it is almost as famous and itself is worth the price!*

* the price is free online, or free if you ask me for a copy, but you get the point.

A God of Wrath? Or a God of Love?

Have you ever been bothered by the idea of God’s wrath?  You’re not alone.  Many people don’t want to believe in the God of Christianity because he sometimes appears dangerously angry in the pages of the Bible.  Many people who are completely devoted to God still struggle with understanding this notion.  Sometimes we avoid thinking about it or we make apologies for it.  For skeptics and believers alike God’s wrath seems to contradict God’s love.  Isn’t God supposed to be loving?  How can Someone who supposedly ‘is love‘, be also full of wrath?

These are good questions to wrestle with.  They need to be seriously chewed upon and not placated with pat answers.  One of the most helpful voices on this for me has been the theologian Miroslav Volf.  He sees God’s wrath and His love as two sides of the same coin.  It is because God is loving that He must be wrathful, and His wrath is a corollary of His love.  Perhaps this comes into focus when we learn a little of Volf’s biography.  He is from Croatia and has seen his share of bloodshed in his homeland.  With that in mind, see how he twins God’s attributes of love and wrath:

MIroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God.  Isn’t God love?  Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath?  God is love, and God loves every person and every creature.  That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them.  My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come.  According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced.  My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.  Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days!  How did God react to the carnage?  By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion?  By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness?  Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?  Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil.  God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love.  God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge:  Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, page 138.

This by no means answers every question about God’s wrath and anger towards sin.  But it helps us to begin to see that wrath and love are not necessarily opposed.  There is good news about God’s wrath even for those most deserving of it.  *we all deserve wrath in some measure*  It is that there has come One who has borne wrath for us, saving us from it.  That is the greatest love there is.

Related:

How does God’s wrath help us to be free of it?  Check out this post from the vaults:

The Real Reason Christians can love Our Enemies

The Journey of Conversion Made Up By Mini-Decisions, Part 3

As people journey towards having Christian faith they often have a lot to overcome.  For example, they must come to believe in pretty amazing things like a person being raised from the dead.  That’s hard to believe, admit it!  For the past two days, I’ve been sharing examples of the mini-decisions people often make in becoming Christians as laid out by Tim Keller in Center Church.  Some decisions are in the realm of Awareness – they decide that Christianity isn’t so crazy because an ill-conceived notion of it is disregarded and it’s seen more accurately.  Some are in the realm of Relevance – Christian faith starts to appear helpful or applicable to their life.  Another type of mini-decision relates to credibility…

Most people become Christian by taking small steps.

Most people become Christian by taking small steps.

3)  Credibility:  “I need it because it’s true.”  This is a reversal of the modern view that states, “It’s true if I need it.”  If people fail to see the reasonableness of the Gospel, they will lack the endurance to persevere when their faith is challenged.  Examples of mini-decisions include thoughts like these:

“I see that the Bible is historically accurate.”

“You really can’t use science to disprove the supernatural.”

“There really were eyewitnesses to the resurrection.”

“Jesus really is God.”

“I see now why Jesus had to die – it is the only way.” *

 

These types of mini-decisions (or mini-realizations) are obviously more in the intellectual realm.  As a church it is important to remember that our faith is a reasonable one.  Christianity is far more than mere reason but it certainly is not contrary to reason.  Apologetical-type answers are always important, not only to help persuade non-Christians but to shore up our own understanding.  Credibility works to counter-balance relevance.  Christianity is not true because it works for us (sometimes it may feel like it doesn’t!)  Christianity works because it is true.  There are many believers who need to keep learning that.

As Christians we need to allow for people to sometimes come to a slower realization of God’s truth.  Become comfortable with people’s doubts and make room for them to find God’s answers.  Recognize that the New Testament rests its proclamation of the Good News on credible historical foundations.  Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and tell me that it isn’t so!

*  Taken from page 282 of Keller’s Center Church.