It’s time for a little update, not much, but I am no longer new to blogging. I have been at it a few years. Not that I have gained any particular stature. I simply can’t claim to be new at it. I still write as part of my profession, but blogging is more interesting. Blogging is my way of sharpening ideas and fleshing them out. I know I don’t always “get it right”, but it’s the journey that counts.
I have been on a journey for truth since I emerged from the haze and confusion of adolescence, much of it self-induced. Stepping out of that myopic existence I began to get an inkling that a world of truth lay in front of me to encounter, and so I set off. I didn’t realize, then, how much faith is required to seek truth. Continue reading “My Journey”→
I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.
We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.
Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.
Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.
His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.
When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.
Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.
He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.
In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.
Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.
In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.
What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.
Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.
Have you ever wondered who are the people to whom God may say, “I never knew you; depart from me”? If you are like me, those words ring ominously. We might be tempted to gloss over them, because they are uncomfortable to consider, but there they are.
These words contrast with the verse that inspires this article, which informs the title to this blog piece. But first, I want to focus briefly on people whom God never knew. Jesus described them for us.
They are people who prayed to God, “Lord, Lord.” They are people who prophesied in God’s name. They are people who cast out demons and even did “mighty works” in God’s name. They are highly religious people, but they didn’t “do the will of the Father who is in heaven”. (Matt. 7:23)
What does that mean?
For starters, it means that religiosity is not a ticket to heaven. Public piety is not anything that impresses God; if anything, it may even be repulsive to Him.
Power and influence and doing things that amaze people, even if done in God’s name, are not keys to heaven. An eloquent speaker who can bring people to tears and repentance is not, thereby, assured of any place in God’s kingdom. The prophet and the teacher who speak the very word of God are not, by virtue of the gift of prophecy or knowledge, assured of eternity with God.
In the “Love Chapter” of the Bible (1 Corinthians 13), Paul says,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
These realities are at once sobering and liberating. Nothing we can “practice” or do will propel us into God’s heaven. We are saved by grace, though faith, of course (Eph. 2:8-9), but even faith that can move mountains is of no gain to us by itself.
And here is the kicker – not even sacrifice, not even the sacrifice of our own bodies, by itself gains us anything.
David knew this when he said, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” (Ps. 51:16)
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Laying one’s life down might be considered a sacrifice, yes; but it done out of love it is more than merely a sacrifice. It isn’t the act itself that is important, but the motivation, the inspiration, the desire behind the act that matters.
Jesus is the ultimate example of love. When he sacrificed himself for our sakes, he didn’t do it to earn some heavenly brownie points. He gave himself for us out of love for us. He gave himself to us for our benefit. This is love, which focuses not one the benefit of the sacrifice to himself, but on the benefit for other another.
“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) Legalism and fundamentalism and dogmatism and doctrine and theology can never save a person. It doesn’t matter how much we do, or how much we know, or how accurate our understanding is when we have not love.
God, who we are to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24), is love. All the Law and the Prophets are summarized in this one statement: Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:40) Thus, Paul says,
This is the verse that got me thinking about these things today. If you love God, you are known by God. The people of whom God will say, “Depart from Me; I never knew you”, are people who don’t really love God. Their motivation was wrong.
Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.
Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.
When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.
Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)
I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)
Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.
I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)
Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.
He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)
Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?
Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.
A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.
In previous articles, I reflected on the deeply ingrained nature of the belief that the Jews were God’s people. They were entrusted with the Law of Moses, and they had protected the Law God gave them for well over a 1000 years, painstakingly preserving it, passing it down from generation to generation.
They were instructed by God Himself to drive out all the inhabitants in the land God promised them, to avoid intermarrying and being corrupted by the influence of “Gentiles” to worship their gods. Thus, Hebrew descendants of Abraham avoided association with others – Gentiles. Like the plague.
So intent on sticking to the script were Jews in the First Century, that they didn’t recognize God when He shed his deity and came to them as Jesus from Nazareth.
John says that God came to His own people, and they didn’t recognize Him. When the Word through whom the universe was created, the Word who “was with God” and “was God”, became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), “his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:12) “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:11) John continues:
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
“His own” were the Jews. The “all who did receive him, who believed in his name”, were Gentiles (and Jews) who believed in what Jesus said and trusted in him. They became children of God, not because they were born into it, nor because they or anyone else desired it, but because God Himself desired them to be His children.
But these things were far from clear to the early Church. Even Peter, who lived with Jesus and knew him intimately, had difficulty with the idea that the Gospel should be extended to Gentiles.
In the previous articles linked above, I summarized how God gave Peter a vision that occurred three times in a row for emphasis, an audible voice, and the voice of the Holy Spirit, directing him to go with men who appeared just then at the door to summon him. Peter’s experience was orchestrated with an angel that visited Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who was directed to send those men to “a man named Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:5) Then God poured out His Holy Spirit on the Centurion and his household to emphasize to Peter his intention to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles.
But the tradition of shunning the Gentiles would not die easy. Despite the obviously divine orchestration of events to drive home God’s intentions to Peter, Paul had to confront Peter publicly in Antioch over the issue when Jews from Jerusalem came to visit, and Peter disassociated himself from the Antiochian Gentiles. (See Galatians 2-3)
Paul encountered the same issue in Galatia where people were insisting that the Jews continue to follow the Mosaic law. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described his confrontation with Peter. More importantly, Paul explained why the Mosaic Law no longer applied to the people of God – who now included not just the Jews, but everyone!
Paul wrote to the Galatians to address a grievous error in their thinking. They were holding on to a belief that followers of Christ, even Gentiles, must continue to follow Jewish law. Though Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23), it was a rocky start for the fledgling following.
To emphasize the gravity of the point, Paul recalled to the Galatians a time when he opposed Cephas (Peter the Apostle, himself) “to his face” over the issue! (Gal. 2:11)
Paul seemed to have a lot of gall, didn’t he? Peter lived with Jesus for 3 years. He was one of the closest people to Jesus during his life. He was there when Jesus died, and he was one of the first people to see Jesus when he returned, risen from the dead.
Paul was never around back then. He despised Jesus and his followers! He was there, holding the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death, and he was hellbent on quashing the “rebellion” of the Jesus followers to the traditions of Judaism… until Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul. Then, Paul changed completely and became the boldest of proclaimers of the Gospel.
Still, what gall to confront Peter of all people! Right? First for a little back story.
Peter experienced his own change, though not as dramatic. He went from being concerned that he should be not associating with Gentiles to baptizing the Centurion and his entire household and welcoming them into the family of believers!
It took a nothing short of a divine appointment of Peter, the Apostle on which Jesus said he would establish the Church, orchestrated by God with all the bells and whistles to provide clear direction. We might think that this encounter settled the score for Peter, once for all, right?
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