Tag Archives: dogma

Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

I don’t write here much anymore. Back in the day, I was practically fanatical in my rapid pace of authoring some sort of missive, sharing my perspectives on faith, Messiah, Judaism, and the people of the nations of the world.

What happened?

Well, it got to the point where I felt I said everything I had to say. After all, I’m not a professional theologian. I haven’t been to school for this sort of thing, and have no special training beyond what any layperson in a faith community would have access to. I’m just a guy with an opinion, and believe me, there are far too many of us in the blogosphere, religious or otherwise, as it is.

However, yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Tom. I see Tom on Sunday afternoons every other week unless one or the other of us has another commitment. Tom suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He is a man of great faith who, at least when I’m present, faces his ailment with remarkable courage.

We visit in the back bedroom of his home which has been converted to a small den or office. Topics of conversation run from science fiction, comic books, movies, the possibilities and problems with colonization of the Moon, Mars, and even Venus, and just about anything else. We also talk about our faith and what is called “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Roots.”

Many years ago, I ceased attending my local Messianic community (which subsequently disbanded) because I was in a position of leadership and teaching, and as my understanding of my faith and its Biblical foundations evolved, I came to realize that what I had been teaching was pretty much dead wrong. I also realized I had no business teaching anyone anything because I was totally unqualified.

The people I worshiped with didn’t seem to mind one bit and said they enjoyed what I was teaching, but as a matter of conscience, I couldn’t continue.

For a lot of reasons I won’t mention here, I eventually started attending a small, local Baptist church. Just about everyone was nice, and the head Pastor took a liking to me, even to the point of having one-to-one meetings with me almost every Wednesday evening. But in the end, he was trying to convince me to become a good Baptist, and I was trying to convince him of the centrality of corporate Israel in God’s plan of redemption, that the Jewish people remain under the Sinai Covenant, and that the New Covenant, which for the past twenty centuries, has just been peeking through the door at the faithful, so to speak, is merely the writing of Torah on the hearts of Israel, rather than throwing the Five Books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets out the window.

We parted company, and in the years since, I haven’t heard anything from him or anyone else at church.

I’m pretty much a lone wolf these days, reading, studying, and worshiping privately.

So when my friend Tom, who does keep in touch with local, long-term members of the Messianic community, told me there were currently a total of seven “Hebraic” faith groups in our area, I was intrigued. Not enough to sample them, which would complicate matters, including my home life, but I was interested in hearing more.

kjv
© James Pyles – The KJV Bible my Grandma gave me when I was eleven years old

He mentioned a couple who I’d met years ago, and how they had formed their own group. He also mentioned a schism in that group, which happens with some regularity in many of these collectives, but this one was interesting. I guess the problem started with a woman, who is a very intelligent and well-educated mathematician, and who also became a very strict Bible-literalist, as well as a King James Bible only proponent, believing all other translations of the Bible from the original languages into English are bogus.

The most startling revelation was that she also is a Flat Earther. I was stunned.

Supposedly, she dismisses all of the evidence that we live on a globe as conspiracy theories, fake news, faked photographs, and such. This is quite surprising coming from a mathematician, but there are generally two areas of human understanding where dogma and belief seem to outweigh facts in most cases: politics and religion. When you enter those realms, faith and devotion to a set of beliefs, and in many cases, a charismatic leader figure (political or religious) trumps the facts (no pun intended).

The head Pastor at the church I once attended was something of a Bible literalist but not to such an outrageous degree. We live in an observable universe which, to the best of our techniques and our technology, we can objectively examine and re-examine using the scientific method.

Unlike some people I experience in the secular world, I believe science is NOT an object of absolute devotion, and it certainly doesn’t yield accurate results one hundred percent of the time, which is why science is never “settled.” It is a logical, fact-based process of asking questions about some observation, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing it, and so on. It is not merely a set of definitive pronouncements by people in lab coats who some treat as their “High Priests.”

All that said, as a person of faith and a rational, (hopefully) intelligent, and educated human being, I believe that the objective universe and the Bible cannot conflict, because in the former case, the universe was created by God, and in the latter case, our Holy writings were inspired by the same God (inspired, but not authored…it’s complicated).

I know atheists who would jump all over me at this point, citing multiple inconsistencies between Biblical text (which they read in English and with little or no background in solid hermeneutics) and what we know about the universe around us.

As far as how we understand scientific knowledge about some phenomenon, let’s consider black holes which are the end products of stars over a certain mass (our sun doesn’t quality and will eventually become a white dwarf star). Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1915, and when I was taking astronomy classes in the mid-1970s, I was taught a certain set of (then-known) “facts” about black holes. The late Stephen Hawking revolutionized our current understanding of black holes, and even more recent studies indicate that perhaps he didn’t get it quite right.

black hole
Credit: Shutterstock

No, science is never “settled.”

However, if studies and experiments are unbiased (and remember, federal government grants fund an awful lot of scientific studies), the results, given the limitations of our tools and our understanding, should be taken as fairly reliable, which is why I believe the Earth is a sphere and not a flat dinner plate.

My understanding of the history of God’s interactions with human beings tells me that He encounters them/us in all manner of circumstances including worship contexts, which means that the Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, or any other body of worshipers is NOT the one and only “true church” rendering every other congregations of believers invalid. Just look at how much the early worshipers of Christ during the lifetime of the apostles gathered, their praxis, and their prayers differ from most if not all church communities today.

But as I said before, politics and religion are areas where people seem to feel free to leave their brains at the door and rigidly adopt perspectives that are sometimes wildly outside of reality (to the best of our ability to understand said-reality).

The Earth is not flat, the KJV Bible is merely the first biblical text that was translated from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into (now archaic) English and widely disseminated, and science does not disprove God.

Surprised at that last one? How can I say that? There are entire volumes published on trying to answer that question, but let’s briefly consider the nature of God. God creating all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t, is like me writing this blog post or drawing a sketch. The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.

Sure, I can write a story about myself, or make a self-portrait, but objectively, I still exist outside of those products. If I delete the blog post or burn the drawing in my fireplace, I don’t cease to exist. I’m still outside of those “universes.”

So is God.

Of course, God can choose to interact with human beings, and His “interaction” with Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 attests that He can physically affect geography, in this case burning the top of the mountain to ashes.

How He does this no one knows, which is why we call it a miracle.

We can observe, again to the best of technology and methodology, everything inside of the universe, but God is not in the universe, which is why whenever people attempt to experience God outside the context of prayer, they turn to arcane mysticism, which is a topic all its own.

In a nutshell, this is why I believe the Earth is a globe, we’ve put men on the Moon, we have populated Mars with human-made robots, and that God is real.

Understanding God, the Bible, and coming to faith isn’t something that happens in an instant and then the religion is “settled.” Yes, people can come to faith in a single moment, but for most of us, it’s a sometimes long process of exploration. It’s one that I haven’t finished yet, and I probably won’t until the day I die. Just like scientific study, the study of the Bible, and evolving in a life of faith is ongoing, and just like science, it is a never ending process. In both circumstances, we largely accept many things about reality because we have to live and interact in the world without constantly confusing ourselves. We have “faith” in the conclusions by which we operate in a day-by-day life, both scientific conclusions and Biblical conclusions.

But none of that means we know it all. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we become ignorant, uninformed, dogmatic, rigid, and out of touch with the realities of the universe and the Bible.

In the case of the “Flat Earth” lady, she believes in a certain, rigid understanding of the Bible that contradicts observable reality. In some other person’s case, they believe in a certain, sometimes rigid understanding of science, and that all of its conclusions are absolute and final, without considering realities that exist beyond the timespace continuum, and that can only be realized metaphysically.

No human being can know the mind of God, so, as the Apostle Paul quipped in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (emph mine)

The best we can do in understanding both an infinite God and a finite universe is by looking “in a mirror dimly,” a highly distorted and limited set of lenses, because we ourselves and all of our tools and understanding are limited by design.

mirror
Photo credit unknown after search

But it’s not always going to be that way. A day is coming when we will see clearly and everything that we puzzle over now or even downright deny will suddenly make sense. It will be like the day a resurrected Jesus (Yeshua) encountered two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and his explanation of key portions of scripture opened their eyes to the truth of the Messiah (and I wish what he said had been recorded by Luke, because I’d like to hear it, too). Someday it will be like that for all of us, but until then, we need to keep asking questions. Don’t take anything for granted, because if you do, if you stop asking questions, stop seeking a better understanding, whether you are religious or secular, you will become the moral equivalent of a “flat earther.”

I’m very grateful for my relationship with Tom and our regular conversations. He has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart. He is a good friend and an excellent role model for a man of faith. As David wrote in Psalm 23:3, I think God uses him to restore my soul.

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Precious Assumptions

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments. When you believe something is right or wrong, true or false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.

from The Panoplia Prophetica

Be warned…you can be immersed in the Babel Problem, which is the label we give to the omnipresent dangers of achieving wrong combinations from accurate information.

The Mentat Handbook

Both of the above-quoted paragraphs come from the original 1976 hardback edition of Frank Herbert’s novel Children of Dune (pages 250 and 259 respectively). I’ve been criticized before for quoting from this series, since Dune and the indigenous people, the “Freemen” are based on Arab tribal culture, which some consider offensive. I apologize if anyone is distracted or dismayed by my choice of literature, but I think these quotes say something very important.

For the past few days, I’ve been monitoring the conversation on Derek Leman’s recent blog post Responding (Belatedly) to Gene. This is a debate, primarily between Derek, a person who has converted specifically within the context of Messianic Judaism and subsequently was educated as a Rabbi, and Gene Shlomovich, a Jewish person who was previously Messianic but who exited the Messianic framework and is currently affiliated with normative Orthodox Judaism (I apologize if these descriptions are inaccurate and am quite willing to be corrected).

The discussion between them is whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, whether or not the Messiah must be God, and whether or not it is proper for people to worship the human Jesus as a God. It’s actually a lot more complicated, but I don’t want to replicate all of the details here.

There have been plenty of other people who have chimed in with their opinions in the comments section of Derek’s blog. I choose not to participate because I don’t think I can contribute anything within that particular context. One more voice, more or less, isn’t going to change the outcome.

At the start of his blog post, Derek did wisely state:

I do not expect logical arguments and text-based discussions will in and of themselves persuade me to abandon faith in the divinity of Messiah or Gene to take up faith again in Yeshua. Such a naive view of dialogue overlooks two things: the complexity of persons (we are not logic computers) and the nature of evidence (what we believe about almost any topic, like which brand of automobile is best, is rarely just logic).

In other words, don’t expect the final, definitive statement on this important matter to issue forth from this conversation. It won’t.

But it does get people to thinking. It got me to thinking but not necessarily about the specific topic at hand.

Actually, this thought occurred to me last Sunday at church. I don’t know what inspired it exactly. I think I was mentally comparing general revelation, that is the revealing of God in the nature of our created universe, and specific revelation, that is, the Bible.

I expect general and specific revelation to be complementary rather than competing. But when someone tells me that the universe is ten to twelve thousand years old max, and all of our scientific observations tell us that the universe is reliably estimated to be about 13 1/2 billion years old, that’s nowhere near any sort of agreement. And that puts the Bible (or certain interpretations of it) at odds with the observable universe, and all sort of Christian and Jewish rationalizations have to be created to explain away tons and tons of evidence that all point to an old universe and an old earth.

Most of those rationalizations make otherwise highly intelligent and educated people sound kind of dumb.

More than 1,700 years in advance, the author of the Zohar predicted a revolution of science and technology around the year 1840. There he describes the fountains of wisdom bursting forth from the ground and flooding the earth—all in preparation for an era when the world shall be filled with wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.

From this we know that the true purpose of all technology and modern science is neither convenience nor power, but a means to discover G‑dliness within the physical world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Scientific Revolution”
Chabad.org

Curious Tales of TalmudSome of my Christian acquaintances might have a problem with me quoting from Jewish sources, and the vast majority of them would have trouble with anything to do with the Zohar (and I don’t think the Zohar is nearly as old as advertised above). Nevertheless, Rabbi Freeman is saying something important. He’s saying that the observable universe reveals God, and that scientific pursuits fill the world with “wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.”

Some people relate to their religion as if it contains the complete totality of all knowledge of God and complete comprehension of everything in the Bible, and based on that, they believe their conclusions on complicated theological, doctrinal, social, political, and scientific issues are all correct 100% of the time. Other people relate to science and technology in exactly the same way. Both types of people are wrong.

Stars ejected by the black hole have a different composition from that of the newly discovered stars. The 20 new stars have the same makeup as normal disk stars do, so the team doesn’t think these newly discovered stars came from the galaxy’s core, halo or some other exotic place.

“None of these hypervelocity stars come from the center, which implies there is an unexpected new class of hypervelocity star — one with a different ejection mechanism.”

Precise calculations require measurements taken over decades, so some of the stars may not actually travel as fast as they appear to, Palladrino said. To minimize errors, the team performed several statistical tests.

“Although some of our candidates may be flukes, the majority are real,” she said.

What might have provided the needed galaxy-fleeing kick, however, is still a mystery.

-by Nola Taylor Redd, January 27, 2014
“Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way”
Space.com

I love astronomy. The first time I was an undergrad, I took a few classes and fell in love. Unfortunately, my total ineptitude in math prevented me from pursuing astronomy as a degree and a career. But I still like to peruse the popular astronomy publications from time to time.

As you can see, the universe still has plenty of surprises available, and new observations can challenge the assumptions and hypotheses built on previous observations. Astronomy in particular, and all of the scientific disciplines in general, are undergoing a constant state of growth. This isn’t to say that science, which is just a formal method of observation, and scientists, who after all, are only human beings, are perfect and that bias, for a variety of reasons, is incapable of entering into perceptions and conclusions, but such conclusions cannot or at least on principle, should not be considered forever static, immutable, and settled for all time.

ReformationNow let’s turn to what we understand about the Bible. In Christianity, although continual research is being conducted into the New Testament as well as the rest of the scriptures, many believers, including clergy and even some scholars, behave as if all is said and done. Much of what the normative Protestant church believes today hasn’t changed much since the Reformation, and some of what we believe today, even though Protestants think they are wholly separated from Catholic influence, has actually been inherited, almost unchanged, from the very first days of the Eastern and Western (Roman) churches of the first few centuries of Christian history.

Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul’s writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to ascribe the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to first-century Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul’s Writings are called the “old perspective” by adherents of the “New Perspective on Paul”. Thus, the “new perspective” is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of the Lutheran/Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms. (Within this article, “the old perspective” refers specifically to Reformed and Lutheran traditions, especially the views descended from John Calvin and Martin Luther, see also Law and Gospel.)

Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the old perspective, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians’ good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to the new perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general.

“New Perspective on Paul”
-from Wikipedia

This “new perspective” isn’t popular among many Christian NT scholars precisely because it challenges the old assumptions, but it’s important to remember that the original assumptions that were the foundation of the development of early church theology, doctrine, and tradition, were motivated by a strong attempt to separate the Gentile church from Jews, Judaism, and Jewish origins. Those original assumptions, based on Supersessionism, also known as Replacement Theology or Fulfillment Theology, were completely anti-Semitic and derived less from an objective study of the canonized or soon to be canonized texts about the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and more on a heavy bias toward burying any connection to the persecuted normative Judaism of that day, and establishing that God, through Jesus, killed dead the Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, and replaced them with rituals, traditions, and doctrine that resembled the practices of the church’s Jewish forefathers not in the least.

Unfortunately, plenty of Jewish people have been buried in bloody graves as a direct result of the church’s requirement to demonize Jewish people and Judaism in order to establish and elevate the “Goyishe Christ.”

I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time for some new observations. Who knows? Maybe like certain astronomers have recently reported relative to hypervelocity stars, we’ll also find something unexpected. Astronomers observe a universe that is all around us and that has been all around us for over 13 billion years. You’d think that even in the mere few centuries we’ve been seriously studying the stars, we’d pretty much know all that there is to know by now.

sky-above-you-god1Except the universe is vast and our first stumbling efforts into astronomy have been slowly improving over time. Our methods and techniques for observation and information gathering and processing are becoming more accurate, bringing into focus a greater understanding of the mysterious universe that people have been staring into since man and woman stood together in Eden. Thus we continually collect data about the observable universe and add to, amend, or outright change our knowledge based on each new finding in order to sharpen our vision.

But it’s difficult to do that in religion, at least for some folks, because we are really reluctant to let go of obsolete dogma. I recently quoted a portion of a sermon delivered by John MacArthur in which he said:

When Jesus came, everything changed, everything changed.… He didn’t just want to clean up the people’s attitudes as they gave their sacrifices, He obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.

I believe MacArthur to be sincere, well-educated, and very intelligent, but he is definitely “old school” and I suspect highly resistant to re-examining any of the evidence and conclusions regarding what Paul said, why he said it, and what it all really means (to the best of our ability to arrive at “really means”).

It would be the moral equivalent of MacArthur, if he were an astronomer, ignoring the pesky mystery of the “Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way” or somehow explaining that what we appear to plainly see in our observations must be wrong because it disagrees with established scientific “canon”.

What does all this mean for Derek and Gene’s discussion of the past few days, and how Christianity and Judaism have been banging heads over who and what Jesus is for many, many centuries?

As one of my quotes from Herbert’s aforementioned book states, we can still put together “wrong combinations from accurate information.” The universe is the universe and the Bible is the Bible. General and specific revelation are available to all of us and they’ve been available for a long time. The universe changes slowly and the Bible changes not at all, and yet we argue and argue and argue over what they both mean and how someone must be right and everyone else must be wrong.

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

-from “Thought of the Week”
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

John 14:6 (NASB)

We were studying the lives of King Saul and King David in Sunday school last week (“a man after God’s own heart”) and the teacher said something I found odd. He said the fact that God took His Spirit away from Saul did not necessarily mean Saul lost his salvation. It depended on how Saul was in relation to the Messiah; to Jesus.

MessiahI know that a lot of Christians have to retrofit John 14:6 into the ancient Hebrew Scriptures in order to make the Christian concept of “salvation” work, but it’s completely anachronistic. There is nothing wrong with Saul, David, or any of the other Hebrews or even Gentiles of those days being wholly devoted to the God of Israel and Him only.

Jesus did something new (though not what most Christians think) and revolutionary. First of all, he gave the entire world access to God without Gentiles having to enter into the Sinai covenant by converting to Judaism. I got what I’m about to say next from a comment made on my blog, but let’s think of Jesus as a doorway. When we open the door and walk through, what do we find inside but God. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (emph. mine)

This doesn’t negate the vital role of Messiah and his mysterious and even mystic relationship to Hashem and God’s Spirit, all somehow Echad (and I don’t believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just identical and interchangeable components like so many spark plugs), but it does maintain a continual Biblical focus on the God of Heaven from Genesis, through the apostolic period, and beyond.

The FFOZ commentary continues:

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

In the book of Hebrews (10:19–20) we are told that the veil symbolized Messiah’s body. He is the veil. Just as the life was rent from His body, so too the curtain was rent with the result that we might have access to the most holy place through Him. This is not the same as abrogating the Temple worship system; rather, it is a vivid dramatization of what the death of Messiah accomplished: access to God.

Embroidered upon the veil were two cherubim. The cherubim invoke the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the way to the tree of life, as the Torah says in Genesis 3:24, “And at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” The cherubim on the veil stood sentry in front of the Holy of Holies like the two cherubim that guard the way to the tree of life (immortality) and the Garden of Eden (paradise). As the curtain was rent into two pieces, a way between the cherubim was created.

We learn something new every day. I just did.

I’m not going to debate a “right or wrong” relative to Derek and Gene. I am going to say that just because someone zealously maintains a firm conviction in something doesn’t necessarily make that “something” factual. There are many mysteries left in the universe and many mysteries left in the Bible and in God. I happen to believe the “New Perspective on Paul” as related to the “Messianic Jewish” approach (and I realize that there are a ton of variations within those two general categories of study and knowledge) is the right way to go to re-evaluate all of the old assumptions which were based on some pretty bad motivations.

Discussions such as the one between Derek and Gene are, in my opinion, necessary, as long as they can be conducted without personalizing conflict, because they act as a crucible in which we can burn away many of the flaws in our beliefs and at least allow ourselves to question the “assumptions (that) are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.”

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”

-Jean de la Fontaine, French writer and poet

On Being a Good Christian

churchesAfter they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples…

Acts 14:21a (NASB)

Last Sunday, Pastor Randy preached on Acts 14:21-28 in a sermon he called, “What Makes a Good Missionary (Part 3)?” In many ways, the title could be expressed as “What Makes a Good Christian” since it is Pastor’s opinion that all believers are responsible for preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, whether we’re formally called missionaries or not. Pastor spent most of his adult life as a missionary and his parents were missionaries, so it’s completely understandable why his perspective would be as it is.

When he was teaching about what a disciple is, he used several different phrases to describe them/us. I want to focus on one of those phrases:

A good Christian is a person who places himself/herself under a local church authority as a member.

Whoa!

Yeah, I even wrote “whoa” in my notes during the sermon. A member?

Pastor listed a number or reasons for this including giving the person a sense of accountability, opportunities for service, both to the other members of the church and to the larger world, and displaying commitment to the body of believers.

I know what you’re thinking? Aren’t we all as believers, part of the body of Christ anyway, what Pastor called “the universal church?”

Yes, but he used Paul’s model of “planting churches” (I can’t imagine Paul actually used that term) to emphasize how we can’t really function effectively in the body unless we join with a local church and display a commitment to that body as one of the operational parts. The sense of community would also contribute to the individual growing in “Christ-likeness” and, as I said before, providing a platform to allow the individual to minister to God’s people.

I’ve been campaigning to completely redesign the church’s website, which currently looks like a throwback to the ancient web of the 1990s. I’ve gotten some traction, but there’s a bottleneck in the process and until that bottleneck is cleared (which I’m told will be soon), I can’t actively begin my redesign project. Most of the information on the current site is obsolete, however, I did manage to pull this from the “Beliefs” page:

Because the Bible is the complete, true and sufficient Word of God, holding absolute authority for the church and the individual, we believe and teach the following:

  • Jesus Christ as the one and only begotten Son of God, is fully Jehovah God (the second person of the trinity) (John 1:1-14). In Mary’s womb, He joined to His divine nature, a human nature and was virgin born, thus becoming ‘God-man’ (Philippians 2:5-7 / Hebrews 10:5-10).
  • Jesus was tempted by Satan but remained sinless because He was and is God, and it is impossible for God to sin (Deuteronomy 32:3-4). Still, the temptations were both valid and real to the God-man. Oh, how he can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:15-16).
  • Christ was literally crucified on the cross, His blood becoming the sufficient cleansing for our sins. He died and was buried. Then on the third day, He physically arose in victory over sin and death (1st Corinthians 1-5). He who truly believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God is rescued from eternity in hell and given eternal life (Salvation – John 20:31).
  • The next prophetic event will be the taking up into heaven of all believers, ‘The Rapture,’ (1st Thessalonians 4:15-17). Then following the tribulation, Christ will return to the earth with us, His glorified saints, to establish His literal rule over all the earth for 1,000 years (The Millennial Kingdom), and we will rule with Him (Jude 14-15). This is our destiny as Sons of God (Romans 8).
  • Saving faith is by grace alone and not by works of merit that we can do (Ephesians 2:8-9).

churchmembershipI object to the use of “Jehovah” as if that were the actual pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, and I’m not crazy about the “rapture” doctrine. Becoming an actual church member means taking some classes and then signing on the dotted line that you buy all of their doctrine, dogma, and theology hook, line, and sinker.

I’ve had enough conversations with my Pastor to realize our points of disagreement and, if being a member of my church or some other local church is a requirement for being a “good Christian,” then I have a problem.

Sunday afternoon, I had coffee with my good friend Tom. Tom’s been a Christian for over forty years and he and I have both been through the Hebrew Roots “wringer” as well. We have a good many attitudes in common, but he agrees with my Pastor that I will never be truly effective in my community until I formally become a member. Tom’s been a member of his church for about three years now. I asked him what he does about the bits and pieces of church doctrine with which he disagrees. He’s discussed it with his Pastor and his Pastor’s response is, “We’ll work on that.”

I’d interpret that statement to mean that Tom’s Pastor will try to convince Tom of the correctness of whatever Tom currently has issues with. I guess that situation is a work in progress.

But what about me? Frankly, I don’t think any church has their understanding 100% correct. How am I supposed to pretend that the church I attend does? I’m already anticipating a major disagreement next week in Sunday school class over the “symbolic” meaning of the moadim.

By the way, I took a closer look at the study notes for next week’s class and my blood ran cold. I’m actually kind of nervous about this. The notes mainly describe how the primary purpose of all of the Festivals just point to the reality of Jesus Christ. In other words, they had no value of their own to draw the Israelites closer to God (never mind that the word “sacrifice” in Hebrew is “korban” which gives the meaning of “drawing closer to” God). Dispensationalism isn’t supposed to be inherently supersessionistic but this part of it is getting close.

But anyway…

Since Pastor is anachronistically applying the “missionary journeys” of Paul to modern Christian missionary work anyway, let’s apply that process to “church membership.” When Paul “planted churches,” and appointed leaders, how did Gentiles join the community? Besides professing faith in Messiah, was there some additional process of agreeing to the specific conditions and rules of that community in order to join? Maybe, but remember, there weren’t “church denominations” in those days. Yes, there were different streams of Judaism, and “the Way” was the Jewish stream that contained the Jewish and Gentile disciples of Messiah. However, within the Way, were there different and competing variations? Did you have to choose one and forsake all others or could you just be a “generic” Jewish or Gentile disciple of the Jewish Messiah?

Actually, it looks like there were some divisions:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17 (NASB)

broken-crossOn the other hand, it looks like Paul took a dim view of these divisions and urged unity in Messiah, not in the name of some “leader” or “teacher” (or “denomination”).

I know, I know. I can’t anachronistically apply conditions as they existed in Paul’s day to the modern “church” because after all, the “church” isn’t a unified entity, at least at the level of human organizational meaning. Times have changed significantly in the past twenty centuries or so, and being a “good Christian” now means different things to different streams of Christianity.

I currently attend a small, Baptist church in Southwestern Idaho. They have definite standards and a formal process of baptism and education leading to entry into membership. I suppose I could attend and worship there forever as unaffiliated, but then, I wouldn’t meet the qualifications of a “good Christian.”

It’s not that I object to being committed to a community, having affiliation, accountability, and opportunity for service, but it’s the albatross being hung around my neck of all the specific doctrine and dogma to which I object (and if taking Calvinism on board is a requirement, then it’s an absolute “showstopper”). I can’t lie about believing stuff when I don’t believe it, so how can I ever join any church anywhere? How can I, as Pastor puts it, be a “good Christian?”

Oh, and apparently Pastor isn’t alone in his opinion about joining a church. Another collision between the principals outlined in Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David and the reality of “going to church.”

Consider the Days of Old

New WorldOn the verse, “Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7),” the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward.” Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Evolution and the Bible”
Aish.com

I know I’m going to get “heck” for this, at least from conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Evolution and Creation are supposed to be incompatible in both religion and science, but the Aish Rabbi crafts a response to the question of Evolution that allows for both.

Up to a point.

I just finished re-reading Gerald L. Schroeder’s book Genesis and the Big Bang (and just started reading his more recent book The Hidden Face of God ) and Schroeder seems to believe something similar (also, see my previous blog post For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be for more).

One of the problems comes along with trying to reconcile the six days of Creation in the Bible with the 13.7 or so billion years science says the universe has been around. According to present scientific theory, the Earth has been in existence for about 4.5 billion years.

How do six days fit into billions of years and vice versa?

Schroeder suggests a rather complicated interplay involving time dilation and relativity to explain that, from the Earth’s point of view, billions of years passed, but from God’s perspective, it was only six days. Schroeder spent an entire chapter laying the foundation for his belief and I can’t find any way to compress it into a paragraph or two in this blog post and still have it make sense. Suffice it to say that both science and the Bible are right as Schroeder sees it.

But what about life and evolution? According to the Bible, God created all living things as they are known today, including human beings, in just a few days. There were no previous and less developed forms of life, that became more complicated over time as they adapted to environmental changes, resulting in the creatures we have on our planet right now.

The Aish Rabbi refers to the Talmud which states that “there were 974 generations prior to Adam” and that those generations describe the lives of those beings we refer to as “prehistoric man.” Presumably, during that time, other creatures were also created, existed, and faced extinction.

It all makes a sort of sense, but I’m still struggling with seeing Genesis as being able to wholly map to the observations and interpretations we have about our universe based on astronomy, geology, and paleontology.

ancient_skyI admit, that whether you believe the Earth is ten thousand years old or 4.5 billion years old, devotion to God and love and charity to human beings shouldn’t be impacted to any degree in the life of a Christian or observant Jew. Still, it’s a compelling issue because the extreme literal stance on Creation taken by conservative Christians is one of the barriers to evangelizing more educated secular atheists. Educated unbelievers can’t be past the “Christians are ignorant buffoons” factor and I myself feel embarrassed when I hear a Christian trying to convince someone that Earth is a mere ten thousand years of age.

Christians aren’t likely to take the Talmud as an authority but it’s telling that “the famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah” was written in 1842, prior to the publication of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” Darwin, like the stream of Judaism the Aish Rabbi represents, believes in some sort of evolutionary process but that it was not random. God was always the causal agent, the Master Designer.

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.”

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: “…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down…”

The jury is still out regarding the sequencing of how life developed, over what time period, and the mechanics God employed. I believe God made human beings independently and as we are now without prior evolutionary forms, but what about animal life, which was never intended to have the unique position of man?

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology’s record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his “Origin of the Species,” repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

The Aish Rabbi’s opinion is certainly controversial when considered from a fundamentalist Christian position and likely when seen from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint (my wife says the local Chabad Rabbi believes the Earth is roughly 12,000 years old).

world-of-extinct-mammals

I’m writing all this, not to yank anyone’s chain (though I’m sure it will) but to explore my own thought processes on this matter. I didn’t become a believer until I was past forty years old, so all of my educational foundation is based on Earth being very old and that the basic process of scientific examination of our environment is sound and designed to produce more or less reasonable results (although history has shown that those results aren’t always correct upon subsequent examination).

Religion, for its part, has had to make up some rather fanciful stories to explain the fossil record, to explain our understanding of the size and therefore the age of the universe, to explain our understanding of the age of various geological formations on our own planet, and to explain a myriad of other findings from the world of science that seems to radically contradict an absolute literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account.

I really enjoy reading about the sciences, though I’m quite the amateur. I enjoy astronomy. I like hearing about the latest “adventures” of the various robotic probes on the surface of Mars. I have an interest in reading about the journey of Voyager 1 at the edge of interstellar space. I think God created us with an insatiable curiosity about the universe around us and a drive to explore it with the intelligence he created in us.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NASB)

It is said that there was no death before the Fall (which happens in Genesis 3) so how could there have been life on a long-term scale before Adam and Eve? How could life in some form or another have existed for hundreds of millions of years before Adam and there not be death?

When God describes the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how did Adam know what “die” meant? How could the serpent convince Eve she wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:1-5) from eating the fruit if dying was unknown to her? Why would she fear death and why would she have to overcome that fear in order to eat?

Reading the various consequences God visited upon Adam, Eve, and the rest of Creation as listed in Genesis 3, none of them say that all life was immortal before the Fall and suddenly became mortal afterward.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

Genesis 3:22 (NASB)

Gateway to EdenIt seems as if the two humans in the Garden were mortal (along with all other forms of life) and only by taking and eating from the tree of life would they become immortal! The presence of death wasn’t dependent upon the Fall. All life in the Garden was mortal.

Why couldn’t any life that may have existed as created within the span (as the Aish Rabbi suggests) described in Genesis 1:20-26 (the millions and millions of years prior to the creation of modern human beings) have been born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died?

Yeah, I expect to get some static over this blog post, but I’m writing it to explore my own thinking process in this area and also to (hopefully) inspire others to think as well. We need to take a look at the evidence presented by our environment, take a look at the Bible, take a look at our dogma, and struggle with what all that is supposed to mean.

I believe God created us to think, to explore, and to struggle with the meaning of everything we see. I think He wanted us to wonder and to experience wonder. I don’t think He wanted the Bible to be some sort of cosmic solution machine spitting out all the answers to all the questions in bite-sized chunks, like eating from a bowl of Christian-Jewish fortune cookies.

We don’t have to get all the answers from the Bible. God gave us other tools to use as well. Telescopes, microscopes, and the Large Hadron Collider aren’t the enemies of the Bible. They complement it. They are the lens through which we examine the world which reveals God, just as the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and human beings.

John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency, Part 1

think_biblicallyA truly Christian worldview begins with the conviction that God Himself has spoken in Scripture. As Christians, we are committed to the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God. We believe it is reliable and true from cover to cover, in every jot and tittle (cf. Matt 5:18). Scripture, therefore, is the standard by which we must test all other truth-claims. Unless that axiom dominates our perspective on all of life, we cannot legitimately claim to have embraced a Christian worldview.

John MacArthur
“Chapter 1: Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture” (pg 21)
from Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview (ed. John MacArthur)

NOTE: I had a conversation with Pastor Randy last night (Monday) which amended a few things I understand about him and about MacArthur. This blog post and Part 2 which will be published tomorrow morning, were written before that encounter. I’ll post an update after the publication of Part 2.

I remember when I “discovered” the Bible contained internal inconsistencies that could not be “smoothed out” in any reasonable fashion. I remember when I realized that the different Gospel accounts of the timing of the death of Jesus didn’t match up. I remember hitting a wall, going into a tail spin, and experiencing a classic “crisis of faith.” It wasn’t pretty.

I eventually came out of it and retained my faith, but my view of the Bible has never been quite the same since. Yes, I believe it is the Word of God, His chronicle of the interactions between man and God, but I no longer believe that God literally spoke each word of the Bible in the ear of each of the Bible’s contributors as if He had dictated a series of letters to a series of secretaries (I guess I should say “administrative assistants” in this day and age). I believe that in some supernatural sense, God and the contributors became “partners” in the endeavor of composing what we have in our Bibles. It’s inspired by a Holy God but it contains the lived personalities and experiences of each person who did the actual writing.

Pastor Randy gave me the photocopied pages of this chapter written by MacArthur during last week’s Wednesday night meeting. I made the time last Friday to read the pages and found myself scribbling notes furiously in the margins and highlighting numerous sentences and paragraphs. Needless to say, I have some responses to MacArthur’s viewpoint about the Bible.

It might help before you continue, if you click the link of MacArthur’s name that I inserted above. It leads to his Wikipedia page and you can get a brief sketch of who he is, what he’s done, and what he believes about the Bible, Christianity and so on. That will provide the background for understanding his chapter and what I’m going to say about it.

Since we’re going to talk about the Bible being inerrant and sufficient, I suppose a few definitions are in order, via a bit of linkage: Biblical inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture (PDF).

First, something I agree with.

Christian bookstores are full of books offering advice drawn from sources other than the Bible on almost every conceivable subject — parenting, Christian manhood and womanhood, success and self-esteem, relationships, church growth, church leadership, ministry, philosophy, and so on. Various self-appointed experts who claim to have discovered some deep truth not revealed in Scripture have now become familiar fixtures on the evangelical landscape.

-MacArthur, pp 22-23

I almost never go into Christian bookstores anymore for exactly this reason. The products and marketing of said-products in Christian bookstores is little different from their secular counterparts. Oh, they are “dressed up” with “Christianese” terms and phrases to make them sound more “Biblical,” but the methods and techniques used to transmit information and often the information itself is strictly “Madison Avenue meets the Church.”

Also, many years ago, I attended a church that was all about selling itself. Dissatisfied with its image and how the church was growing, the board fired its Pastor and hired one who actually had a graduate degree in “Church Growth.” Interesting educational emphasis. The new Pastor came in with graphs and charts and statistics showing us how we needed to move locations, build a much larger facility with multi-purpose capacities, target an area of our valley that contained a specific demography of the population, and use other modern marketing techniques to attract a large influx of people “for the Lord.”

I couldn’t get out fast enough and I’ve never been back.

Oh, on top of all that, what MacArthur says about “various self-appointed experts who claim to have discovered some deep truth not revealed in Scripture” is spot on. For the better part of a decade, in one way or another, I was involved in the Hebrew Roots (One Law) movement. While most of the people I had regular fellowship with were good, well-grounded, honest, devoted disciples of Christ, the Hebrew Roots movement is totally unregulated and unrestricted, so just about anyone can pop up, put on a kippah and tallit, and call themselves a “Messianic Rabbi.” Then they get to sell their wares to whatever audience they can attract, based on the particular theological ax they’re grinding, and claim to have received some sort of “special anointment from the Lord” or “revelation of the end times.”

I’ve learned to beware of congregations that are run by “one-man shows” rather than being governed by a board based on a distributed leadership model.

If you can’t back up what you’re teaching with Scripture, then there’s a problem. But even then, lots and lots of stuff is taught that is supposedly based on Scripture, proving you can make the Bible say almost anything if you spin it fast enough.

Which brings me to MacArthur’s quoting from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647 CE):

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (emph. mine)

-ibid, pg 22

It’s that “may be deduced from Scripture” part that makes things a little hazy. What MacArthur calls “deduced” could, in theory, be just about anything depending, again, on how hard and fast you spin the Bible. I know MacArthur probably had Judaism in mind when he mentioned “traditions of men”, leveraging the classic Christian view of all Pharisees making stuff up out of whole cloth and that the Rabbis being the direct inheritors of traditions and hypocrisy.

BiblicallyBut to be fair to the Rabbinic sages, they believe that they are actually “deducing” stuff from the Torah (Bible) in order to make the contents applicable to different generations and different circumstances (apparently) not anticipated by the literal text (using microwave ovens and driving cars on Shabbat comes to mind). According to MacArthur, this would be against the rules and that the Bible does anticipate all contingencies, circumstances, and technological advances. The Bible is sufficient. End of story.

Let’s drill down into a specific example using an issue that MacArthur definitely has strong feelings about.

Scripture reveals the deepest thoughts and intentions of the human heart, so that “all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Thus, the Bible can do what psychoanalysis can never do. It is sufficient to penetrate and lay bare the deepest part of a person’s soul. (emph. mine)

-ibid pg 27

Never mind that psychoanalysis, a therapeutic model based on the theories of Sigmund Freud that, to the best of my knowledge, is no longer practiced due to the amount of time it takes (years), the sheer expense of the treatment, and the fact that insurance companies don’t cover the costs involved. I think MacArthur probably means psychotherapy, but let’s continue.

He is also an advocate of Nouthetic Counseling, which stresses the Bible as a sufficient tool for counseling people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. MacArthur rejects psychological theories and techniques, considering psychology and psychiatry as contrary to the Bible…MacArthur criticises “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he claims “Such a thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes is nonexistent.” Concerning people who consult secular mental health professionals, MacArthur believes “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”

MacArthur has argued that “True psychology (i.e. “the study of the soul”) can be done only by Christians, since only Christians have the resources for understanding and transforming the soul. The secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations and is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level… Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, Christian psychology is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency…. ”

His stance has caused several controversies, the most notable of which was the first time an employee of an evangelical church had ever been sued for malpractice. The case failed to come to trial because a judge ruled the case as having insufficient evidence.

Wikipedia: MacArthur on Psychology

Wikipedia doesn’t give a clear picture of MacArthur’s education, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include psychology, psychiatry, social work, or similar disciplines. I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Counseling with fifteen years of post-graduate clinical experience (before switching careers) and I have a little bit of an understanding of mental illness and its treatment. I can tell you that it is quite possible to provide successful treatment of a variety of disorders without consulting the Bible. This isn’t to say that I find the Bible useless in addressing our emotional and spiritual woes (and the Bible is uniquely able to address our spiritual hurts), but I know that I and many, many other mental health practitioners have successfully alleviated the painful struggles of countless men, women, and children who were suffering from depression and anxiety related symptoms.

Phobias are a perfect example and they can be treated with rationally based desensitization techniques that gradually enable the person who can’t even think about driving, getting in an elevator, or whatever without breaking out in a cold sweat, to do the very thing that formerly caused them to experience fear and dread.

john-macarthurGranted, it’s not a perfect tool, but even medicine “isn’t an exact science” (I remember the first time I heard a doctor tell me that, and it came as quite a shock). Nothing works perfectly all the time, but to do nothing at all would not only be immoral and unethical, but terribly cruel. Although MacArthur doesn’t speak about psychopharmacology, I suspect he’s against it, and that is even worse. Depression, for example, is very treatable using various medications and many depressions have a clear physiological basis. And let’s not get started on psychotic disorders which cannot be addressed without medication therapy. You can’t “talk” a person out of hallucinations.

I could spend all day on this one disagreement, but there are other issues to discuss, which I’ll get to in Part 2 of this article in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”

140 days.

The Transcendent Path

Tree of LifeIf you find yourself affixed to a single path to truth—the path of prayer and praise, or the path of kindness and love,or the path of wisdom and meditation,or any other path of a singular mode—you are on the wrong path. Truth is not at the end of a path. Truth transcends all paths. Choose a path. But when you must, take the opposite path as well.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Two at Once”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

As human beings, we have a tendency to compartmentalize and specialize our lives. This comes as no surprise to me, since organization of the different elements of life into “categories” is how we understand ourselves. We have an order and a set of habits to what we do. We also have an awareness of what we’re good at and what we aren’t; a set of “gifts” to which we lean upon and if we are kind, offer to others. Organizing our lives by categorization is necessary so we can conceptualize events, circumstances, and objects and make sense of the world around us.

But it can also be a limitation if we believe we are only defined be these categories. Saying, “I’m only good at this, so I won’t try that,” may rob someone who needs you to do “that” for them rather than “this.”

I’m as guilty of this sort of thinking and behaving as anyone. I’m a writer, both professionally and “for fun.” I find that I can clarify my own thinking and understand better what some people are saying to me if I write about those experiences. My Wednesday night meetings with Pastor Randy are a perfect example. He might say a few sentences to me on Wednesday that will fuel my blog posts for an entire week, because I use writing to continually process what he has been teaching.

But I cannot allow writing to be the totality of my identity and my activity. Someone who needs me to give them a lift to a doctor’s appointment because their car broke down won’t be helped if I only write about their need. I should offer them a ride to and from the appointment in my car. I should do something that I’m not accustomed to considering as an “expertise” of mine in order to meet another human being’s need.

Earlier today, I was writing about giving chesed to the stranger, showing someone who needs you a kindness, not because they are your friend or neighbor, but just because they need you.

In the world of “religious blogging,” most of us have a tendency to write about what we’re interested in, and again, I’m no exception. We often write about the theological or doctrinal specifics with which we identify. Jews write about Judaism and Christians write about Christianity. Nothing strange about that. Even within a particular religious structure, we tend to write about those areas of which we are particularly fond or in which we are interested.

I’ve written lately on Divine Election because I was processing that information. For another person, that might be a rather meaningless topic. I’ve read blogs recently about the Leviticus 11 kosher laws, Bibles limited to the New Testament and the Psalms, Shomer Negiah, Good Friday, and other religious subjects. Nothing wrong with writing about any of those religious topics…

…unless they limit what else we should be doing.

We tend to choose a path and then walk it, but then we only walk that path and no other. According to what Rabbi Freeman said above, that’s not the right path. If we are on the path of prayer and praising God but a homeless person on the street needs us to give them something to eat, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment. If we are busy donating our time at a shelter or food kitchen, but God needs us to read and meditate upon His Word, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment.

The individual’s avoda must be commensurate with his character and innate qualities. There may be one who can drill pearls or polish gems but works at baking bread (the analogy in the realm of avoda may be easily understood). Though baking bread is a most necessary craft and occupation, this person is considered to have committed a “sin.”

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Nissan 25, 10t day of the omer, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

white-pigeon-kotelAvoda is a Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “work,” but among the Chassidim, it “generally refers to Divine service (or worship). For example, it’s part of the Divine service to serve God with joy.” Is who we are as servants of God limited to our theology or our religious identity, or is there something that transcends all that information, and unites us as living, human creations of the Most High God?

We often drone on and on and on about our insights into the Bible, our own theological pet peeves, or about how people with different theological pet peeves annoy us and are guilty of “false teaching,” but do we take the time to transcend our categories, our pigeon-holed lives, and realize that truth is much, much larger than the box we’ve put ourselves in?

And if your brother is not close to you and you do not know him.

Deuteronomy 22:2

Perhaps the reason that other people are not close to you is because you do not know them.

The Chassidic master of Apt said: “As a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I matured, I narrowed my goals to changing my community. Still later, I decided to change only my family. Now I realize that it is all I can do to change myself.”

Some things in the world are givens, and others are modifiable. The only thing we can really modify is ourselves. All other people are givens. Unfortunately, many people assume the reverse to be true. They accept themselves as givens and expect everyone else to change to accommodate them.

(There is one limited exception. When our children are small, we can teach and guide them. When they mature, however, we can no longer mold them.)

Trying to change others is both futile and frustrating. Furthermore, we cannot see other people the way they truly are, as long as we are preoccupied with trying to change them to the way we would like them to be.

The people we should know the most intimately are those who are closest to us. Yet it is precisely these people whom we wish to mold into the image we have developed for them. As long as this attitude prevails, we cannot see them for what they are. How ironic and tragic that those we care for the most may be those we know the least!

Today I shall…

…try to focus any desires to change on myself and let other people determine for themselves who and what they wish to be.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nissan 20”
Aish.com

light-of-the-worldTo extend Rabbi Twerski’s metaphor, we can only change the world by changing ourselves. We can only serve God and change the world, by accepting that others will always be different from us and then realize that’s not always a bad thing. We, in the end, are only responsible for who we are. God will not judge us on what other people have done but only on what we have done with our lives. If we have treated others kindly, our theology, doctrine, dogma, or any of the other boxes and pigeon holes we’ve used to categorize and identify ourselves in this world will be worth less than who we are in Christ.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Philippians 3:4-8

Paul isn’t saying that his being Jewish is literally worthless, and I’m not suggesting that how we study and understand the Word of God is meaningless, either. What I am saying is that, like Paul, there is something much, much greater. The Master taught us that loving God to our fullest extent and loving other human beings as ourselves are the essence of everything in the Bible. He also taught that we would be known as his disciples specifically by our love of one another, a love that goes so far that we would be willing to give up our lives for another if required.

If anything can be said to transcend all of our paths, our categories, our religious posturing, it is love…even love for the unlovable and the unlikable ..especially love for those who otherwise make us feel hurt and angry and aggravated. If we can authentically show them love, then we are better than all of the sermons and blog posts about theology that we could ever produce. Then, we are written in His Book of Life because we have loved.

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

We must be more.