Archive for the ‘Religion’ category

An Ancient Near East View of Israel

October 18, 2018

Gehenna (Hinnom) Valley near the Old City in Jerusalem

I am grateful for the religion classes I had in college. I wasn’t a religion major, but I took all the classes to be one, including the thesis class. I took them because I was hungry for the truth that was contained in the ancient scriptures. That hunger began as a hunger for truth, and I searched for it in history, literature, art, philosophy and wherever I could find it, including religion.

I searched for whatever truth I could find in the various religions of the world, but the religion classes at Cornell College where I did my undergraduate work were largely the Judeo-Christian scriptures. There I got a solid academic foundation for Old Testament and New Testament, with an emphasis on the Pentateuch (Books of Moses), writings and the Prophets, because one of the two religion professors was Jewish.

I appreciate the sense of the sweep of biblical history that this education gave me. I wasn’t taught in the context of a particular Christian denomination, but from a Jewish perspective. So, I appreciate what James Michael Smith is doing in his ministry, the DiscipleDojo, who presents an authentic Ancient Near East perspective of Deuteronomy in the podcast that is embedded below. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing (and listen to the other installments if your interest is piqued).

To get an accurate and nuanced understanding of God’s interaction in history with His covenant people that became the backdrop and springboard for His plan of universal redemption, it helps to understand the Ancient Near East that formed the historical context for this interaction. The Abrahamic people were very much people of the Ancient Near East. God’s interaction connects with them where they were in the cultural understandings that informed them.

It’s amazing to me to think about how this very intimate and familiar interaction in an Ancient Near East culture with an Bronze Age people (as skeptics like to point out) has become a timeless, ongoing and ever relevant message for us through the Scripture that was inspired and written down in the process. How could such a Bronze Age perspective carry forward such a universal and timeless message?

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Giving Alms from Within

October 3, 2018


Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside.  It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!

For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!

But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)

Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.

So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!

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Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?

September 20, 2018


Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’  So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:   “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” Matthew 15:1-9 ESV


And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”…. Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20 ESV

Jesus leveled his criticism at people who seemed to honor God in the way they spoke and acted, but they didn’t honor God in their hearts. He quoted the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel who carried a similar theme in their writings. The prophets were as harsh on the religious and political leaders of their day as Jesus was in his day.

The statement, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, seems to miss the mark in light of the importance Jesus places on the heart, does it not? Not that what we do isn’t important. It’s just that what we do starts with who we are, and who are is in our hearts.

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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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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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Separating Caesar from the Church

June 21, 2018


Everyone has a hierarchy of values. Whatever is at the top of your hierarchy of values is your God, says Jordan Peterson. Although he hesitates to call himself a Christian, he has a good understanding of the Bible and its positive impact on society and people, individually. This particular statement rings with the purity of truth.

Jordan Peterson has been much in the news and was recently interviewed on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley. The topic was: Do we need God to make sense of life? The atheist psychologist, Susan Blackmore, was his counterpart. The podcast (linked above) is worth a listen.

Jordan Peterson also claimed in the course of the discussion that the first pronouncement of the ideal of the separation of church and state came from Jesus when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

Modern Christians (many of them) seem to think that the separation of the church and state is a bad thing. A common assumption seems to be that the “wall of separation” between the church and state is a way for politicians to keep Christians out of politics and to keep politics from being influenced by Christians. What do you think?

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Ritual, Spirit and Truth

April 15, 2018

Depositphotos Image ID: 23471738 Copyright: ChiccoDodiFC

I was raised Catholic. I say that often. Not that it is a bad thing. It’s just my experience. During my time in the Catholic church, through my childhood and early adulthood, I had no connection with God. I can’t lay the blame for that at the feet of the Catholic Church. That was just where I was.

When I became a Believer, when I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, my life changed. I also began to see the Catholic Church in a different light. I was never into the ritual and observance, which is a major component of the Catholic Church. Not that other denominations and religions don’t have central religious rituals. All religions have ritual observances and traditions.

Those ritual observances and traditions are not, in themselves, bad, but they can create a facade that hides emptiness, darkness and sin. They can create an appearance of piety with no spiritual reality behind them. They can be more superstitious than spiritual, like stroking a rabbits foot for good fortune. In these and other ways, ritual observances can become a substitute for relationship with God.

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Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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