Archive for the ‘History’ category

Who Was Jesus?

December 10, 2018


Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.

This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.

A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.

The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.

My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.

I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.

As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.

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Questions of Greatness and Goodness

December 7, 2018


“The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he help men think about new ideas with a vigor that persisted after he was gone?’” H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the great English writer considered “the father of science fiction”, was a forward thinker, believing in the progression of man in the vein of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. He was no friend of orthodox Christianity, nor of any religion. (See Wikipedia) “None of his contemporaries did more to encourage revolt against Christian tenets and accepted codes of behaviour, especially as regards sex….” (See Britannica).

It’s ironic I suppose, then, that I am thinking about Jesus as I read his words.

Wells expressed a hope in his writing “that human society would evolve into higher forms”. He believed from early on in the “doctrine of social progress”. (See Britannica) World War I impacted the idealistic hopes of youth, but Wells continued to believe that humankind could progress through knowledge and education.

I wonder what Wells would say today? How much have we progressed? Would his waning optimism have shriveled altogether if he had lived long enough? His last written work, Mind at the End of its Tether, written at the outbreak of World War II, suggests some further erosion in the hope of his youth, painting a very bleak picture of the future of mankind in which nature itself rebels against the evils of men.

Though H.G. Wells visited with both Lenin and Stalin, he probably didn’t know all the details of the atrocities that Stalin (particularly ) committed. A grim estimate of people killed at Stalin’s direction is 40 million! (See ibtimes) What would Wells have thought about the progression of mankind if he knew the truth? What if he knew of all the genocides that occurred and would occur in the 20th and 21st centuries alone? (See The worst genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries)

Should H.G. Wells’ test of greatness by changed to include goodness?

An atheist friend of mine challenged me to prove to him that the world is a better place with religion (and Christianity in particular). I don’t recall exactly how I responded to him, but I have thought about his challenge since then.

We can’t deny that bad things have been done by people in the name of religion, including Christianity. I would not deny it. But what of the good?

H.G. Wells poses a question about greatness. My friend poses a question about goodness.

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Reading the Writing on the Cave Wall

October 11, 2018

 

Genevieve Von Petzinger speaks at TED Fellows Retreat 2015, August 26-30, 2015, Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Genevieve von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist, has a TED talk that is garnering some attention. She speaks on her findings from the exploration of art and geometric signs in caves around Europe. Most people have long known about the cave art, but the geometric signs were largely ignored until von Petzinger decided to focus on them and catalogue them.

Maybe the fascination with the art distracted people from the significance of the geometric signs and contributed to the under reporting of them. Von Petzinger is the first person to document and create a database of those geometric signs. She reports that she found previously undocumented geometric signs in 70% of the caves she surveyed.

Her TED talk focused on a stunning discovery she made. She observed that a total of 32 different geometric signs can be found in all the caves she visited. Only 32 different geometric signs were evidenced over a 30,000-year period on the entire continent of Europe! If they were random doodles or decorations, she says, we would expect to see much more variation, but that isn’t what she found.

Instead, she discovered that the signs were repeated from location to location. About 60% of the signs were used throughout the entire 30,000-year time span.

Some signs appeared early and ceased to be used, and other signs appeared later. Some signs appeared in wide geographic distribution, while other signs appeared in more concentrated geographic areas. But most of the signs were found throughout the continent and throughout the 30,000-year span.

Interestingly, the cave art in Europe bears some resemblance to the cave art as far away as Indonesia and Australia. Many of the same signs appear in far flung places, especially in the 30,000-40,000 year range. Genevieve von Petzinger says that these findings indicate an increasing likelihood that “this invention traces back to a common point of origin in Africa”, but “that is a subject for a future talk”, says von Petzinger.

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Christianity and Society’s Ills

July 23, 2018

Heroes Square Budapest Hungary

A social media friend recently responded to a blog article I wrote, Are Christians Hypocrites, by asking whether I thought that “higher religious subscription correlated to fewer societal ills”. I think the answer is clearly, yes! (For a skeptic who agrees with me, see this dialogue on the podcast Unbelievable!)

But I know what he was getting at. Intermixed with that “progress” in the Western world are deep grains of corruption and evil in which the Church was not only complicit, but intimately involved.

My friend is a skeptic and an atheist. He believes that the world is better off without religion. He is critical of Christianity, and let’s face it: “the Church” has created its share of societal ills.

People are often critical of Christians and Christianity with some basis in fact for its checkered past. Christians often view that history differently than non-Christians, but a candid person must admit that corruption in “the church” evidenced in history is undeniable.

For skeptics, this vein of corruption running through the history of the Church”spoils the whole thing, undermines the truth of Christianity and justifies their rejection of it and the God Christians profess. The fact that popular history focuses on that corruption, to the exclusion of all the good that Christianity has brought to the world, doesn’t negate the fact that such corruption exists.

When my friend posed his loaded question to me, I suspect that he sees a correlation between religion and societal ills, and I can’t deny it.

But there is much more to the analysis. From my cursory perspective (I am no historical or ecclesiastical scholar), that corruption correlates strongly and directly with the “marriage” of church and state power. I think that Lord Acton was right when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the church becomes intertwined with kings and kingdoms, the influences of power, wealth and all that goes with it colors the church, and the church is inevitably corrupted by it.

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CS Lewis on the “True Myth”

July 3, 2018

The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and allude to CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate. He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, that any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Paul the Apostle, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he debated in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address a Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5): “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28)

Paul used the quotation from Aratus that was spoken by a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) On the one hand, Paul connected with the people “where they were” using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul know enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

What CS Lewis says about myth is that it contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is just a shadow of the True Myth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

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A Cosmic Wrench in Our Power Grid

June 26, 2018


The podcast, Unbelievable, with host, Justin Brierley, is becoming a favorite food for thought. I just listened to Steven Pinker vs Nick Spencer: Have science, reason & humanism replaced faith? Pinker is an atheist professor of Psychology from Harvard, and Spencer is billed as a member of “the Christian think tank, Theos”. The subject was “Pinker’s recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’, addressing his claim that science, reason and humanism are the drivers of progress in the world, not religion”.

As with most of the episodes I have listened to, this one was a very civil and respectful “debate”, really more of a dialogue, on the respective points of view. This civility and respect sets Unbelievable apart from more reactive “discussions” of controversial topics.

In this particular discussion, the focus was on Pinker’s optimistic view of humanism bolstered by science and technology echoing the familiar theme that we are progressing as a species as we free ourselves from religion with the aid of science and technology carrying us forward. Pinker minimizes the influence of religion on the enlightenment and the sudden advancement of science that accompanied it, while Spencer argued that the influence of religion is what fundamentally motivated and shaped those movements.

Spencer agreed with much that Pinker says about the progress of modern man, though he disagrees that science has shaped the moral advances we have experienced. He says that the value of the individual and sanctity of human rights is at heart a religious concept. He even points out that Pinker has to resort to the religious term, sacred, to describe these concepts as some evidence of the religious influence.

I have long toyed with the notion that we are not as advanced, morally, as we think ourselves. The 20th Century was the bloodiest of all centuries. Characteristic of the 20th Century was the genocidal bloodshed and cruelty of the atheist regimes under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and others. Some would add Hitler to the hit list of atheist genocidal despots, but that point is often argued, with religionists foisting Hitler on the atheists, and the atheists pushing him back on the religionists.

Hitler is somewhat of an enigma, generating an almost religious following marked by a personality that modeled a religion-like fervor. Pinker and Spencer debated whether Hitler was influenced by Darwinism, with Pinker countering that Hitler despised Darwin.

Though the truth of Hitler’s motivations my remain a mystery, and despite the unprecedented genocides perpetuated in the 20th Century, Spencer agreed with Pinker that we have progressed morally into the 21st Century. We generally exhibit a higher morality, however you slice it, (at least in the western world) in modern times than ever before, and this higher morality tracks scientific and technological progress.

As the two men carried on the conversation about the relative influences of religion and scientific and technological advancement on that progress, some thoughts occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. I would agree with Spencer that religion (principally Judeo-Christian principles in the west) has largely carried us to this place where, ironically, we are finding no more need of God.

This perspective, also, flows from those same Judeo-Christian roots that holds out human pride as the principal problem (sin) of humankind. Having achieved a degree of independence and comfort through the advancement of technology, we believe “can do this” on our own (to paraphrase the testosterone influenced enthusiasm of my former teenage boys).

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What the Studies Say on Immigration and Crime

June 23, 2018


Much of the positioning and politicking about immigration focuses on crime and fears that immigration brings crime into the country. Donald Trump famously said of Mexican immigrants, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (Remarks from the speech by Donald Trump when announced his run for the Republican nomination for president at Trump Tower Atrium in Manhattan on June 16, 2015)

Crime is obviously a very big societal concern, and one we shouldn’t take lightly. Most Americans are in agreement on that point. Protecting law abiding citizens from criminal behaviors is a top priority, one that often justifies using a significant percentage of local tax dollars in support of law enforcement. If immigration increases crime in our communities, tightening up the immigration laws makes sense from the standpoint of protecting citizens from crime. But does it?

Does immigration increase the crime rate in our communities? Are immigrants more likely to commit crimes than citizens?

I wasn’t at all sure what the studies show so I set out to determine for myself the answer to the questions. These are important questions because our immigration policies should be informed by the facts. As Christians, especially, we should be guided by truth.

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Malcolm Guite

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