God’s Love is Not Platonic

The love that God offers is relational, intimate and personal.


John the Apostle, a Hebrew from a remote province in the Roman Empire, lived a long life. The other apostles died premature deaths, but John, a typical Hebrew, lived long enough to be elevated out of his provincial Jewish world by the God who created it. His writing, as much as any of the New Testament authors, has a strong philosophical theme, but that philosophical theme is no abstract intellectual construct.

John the one-time fisherman became familiar with the greater Greco-Roman world by which the Palestinian province of his birth was governed and influenced. That familiarity is reflected in the Gospel that bears his name.

His gospel begins philosophically: “In the beginning was the Word”, the Logos.  (John 1:1)  The word, logos, carried poignant philosophical meaning in the Greco-Roman world. John’s use of that word to open his account of the life and message of Jesus shows that John, the provincial Hebrew, familiarized himself with that world and its thought.

This is in keeping with the instruction from Jesus to his followers to go into all the world explaining the message Jesus gave them. To go into the world, we have to become familiar with it and conversant with the thought that predominates in the world to which we go.

Though John’s Gospel begins philosophically, focusing on the loaded word, logos, he didn’t have the abstract notions of philosophy in mind. John’s use of that word pointed outside the Greco-Roman world and transcended it.

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Born Again: the Paradigm Shift

Being born again is the ultimate light bulb moment, and everything changes and is illuminated by it.

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I listened recently to a talk given by Tim Keller who has a way of reducing “mysterious” ideas to plain English like few are able to do. In this talk, he tackled the Christian concept of being “born again”. People who walk in some Christian circles may take for granted what it means to be “born again” (or maybe not), but anyone who grew up outside the evangelical influence may have very little idea what it means.

“Born again” are buzz words to be sure. They are used ubiquitously to mean a certain “brand” of Christian, sometimes, or even a certain political persuasion, which is really a bastardization of the meaning of the phrase. The phrase has its roots in a particular passage of Scripture and is meant to convey the idea of a paradigm shift of sorts – an ultimate, life changing paradigm shift.

Being “born again” is often assumed to mean a religious experience accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but that really isn’t quite what the phrase originally meant, or even what it really means at its essence. Being born again might be accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but not always.

I think of CS Lewis, who I would consider a “born again Christian”, when I say that “being born again” isn’t always accompanied by high, religious emotions. He described his “experience” this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, Ch. 14, p. 266).

Indeed, CS Lewis is not alone in finding the doorway to Christianity being rather more of a cross than a resurrection. Of course, the cross always precedes the resurrection.

Aside from the idea that being born again is primarily an emotional experience, people often think of it as signing onto a set of morally rigid religious principles. The words from CS Lewis might tend to support that idea, but that would be wrong as well. In fact, it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.

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No One is Born a Christian

You can be born a Hindu. You can be born a Muslim, You can be born a Jew.

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I have written a an article titled, God has no Grandchildren. I just watched a talk by Mary Poplin in which she makes the bold statement, “You can not ne born a Christian. You can be born a Hindu. You can be born a Muslim, You can be born a Jew. You cannot be born a Christian.” (Mary Poplin: The Radical Conversion of a Secular Scholar) I realized immediately that these points are intertwined.

Without any adieu, you must be born again!

“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
“‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.
“’You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.'” (John 3:1-13)

We have to be born into relationship with God. We don’t inherit a relationship with God. We must receive Him directly, on our own.

“[T]o all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)

 

 

Spirit and Truth vs. Self-Made Religion

It isn’t things from outside that corrupt a person, but things from inside.

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In a previous blog article, I talked about the shadow of things to come. Paul says that following rules and observing religious ritual is just a shadow of things to come. Later in the same chapter in Colossians, Paul explains in more detail what he is getting at. When we are focused only on the do’s and the don’ts and on observing religious rituals, we are focused on the wrong things.

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle,  Do not taste,  Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

Paul isn’t advocating that followers of Christ abandon self-discipline and self-control and do whatever they like. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) But, following Jesus doesn’t mean stepping up religious observances and following rules and regulations more closely. The focus on rules and rituals entirely misses the point.

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Limitations in Science and Logic and the Leap of Faith

Science and reason and the measures available to finite beings can take finite beings only so far in determining the existence of a non-finite God.

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I recently had a short exchange with a friend who is an atheist over an article I wrote about science and faith. He is intimating familiar with the world of science, his father being a scientist, and he making a living on scientific principles.

He found my article and analysis of atheism and science to be colored by my faith. And, of course it is, just as his view of religion and science is colored by his atheism. We all start with basic assumptions, and they color the world as we see it, the atheist no less than the theist.

He views God as a fiction. I view God as reality, transcending all the reality I think I know. We couldn’t be more opposed in our views of the world, though our different views do not mean we cannot be friends and learn from one another.

I suggested to him that both theism and atheism are rational conclusions, but the conclusions depend on the starting places. These ideas come from philosophy, and specifically from Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard.

Kant, in particular, set up syllogisms that were logically airtight. One syllogism proved the existence of God, and the other syllogism proved the nonexistence. He showed that both atheism and theism can both by logically “proven”. Syllogisms reaching both conclusions can hold up logically. The only difference is the starting premises.

To put it more simply: if you start with a premise that assumes God, a logical syllogism can be constructed that proves the existence of God. If you start with a premise that assumes no God, a logical syllogism can be constructed that proves the nonexistence of God. This is an oversimplification, but it makes the point.

How, then, does a person resolve the tension between these diametrically opposite conclusions? Logic cannot suggest an answer to this conundrum because logic can only operate on the basis of premises, and the premises with which we start make all the difference.

If we could determine which premise is correct, we would be well on our way, but it turns out that this is easier said than done. What then?

Science doesn’t help us either. Science is, by definition, the study of the natural world. God is, by definition, “other” than (“outside” from) the natural world.  Science can take us back to nanoseconds after the Big Bang, but we can peer no further into our past. We can’t see the very beginning, and we can’t see beyond it.

We can’t see through the lens of science and our senses beyond this natural world, and this leads many, like my friend, to conclude that nothing exists beyond the natural world. It’s a fair conclusion, to be frank.

But it’s a bit short sighted. Why we do presume that our mental faculties, finite and limited as they are, have the capability of determining the measure of all reality that we did not create?

How do we know if there is anything beyond the natural world? How do we know if there is a God?

Continue reading “Limitations in Science and Logic and the Leap of Faith”