Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Tao Te Ching

I recently read the Tao Te Ching.  The version that I read was Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations. Dyer draws from a variety of English translations.

The book is like a daily devotional.  You read a verse of the Tao Te Ching on one side of the page, and Dyer offers a take-home application point on the other side.  I decided to read this version because I expected the Tao Te Ching to be very abstruse and complicated, so I figured that it would help me if someone provided a concise take-home point, and Dyer seemed well-read on Taoism.

In this post, I will talk about my exposure to Taoism prior to reading this book, then I will list some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching.

I first learned about the Tao Te Ching in college.  I was a Christian fundamentalist at the time, and a fellow student wanted to enlighten me about another religion, namely Taoism.  I was not as backward as he thought, though, since I was asking him questions about Taoism, and I observed common ground between Taoism and Christianity.  The theme of the Tao Te Ching that he emphasized was that of observing the natural order and gaining wisdom from that.  He said that he read the Bible and it never made a connection with him, but the Tao Te Ching made a connection.  When I asked him what a particular line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching meant, he responded that he thought about that, and he shared with me his conclusion.  That reminded me of how Christians read and meditate on verses in the Bible.

My second exposure to Taoism was in a college philosophy class.  We were reading Lao-zu, and some of the students in the class were baffled.  Some thought that the reading was rambling.  Another student believed that it addressed an obvious and unnecessary question: Would you prefer a long life without fear or pain, or a short life with fear or pain?  “Of course I would prefer a long life without fear or pain!”, he said.  “A better dilemma would be whether you would choose a long life with fear or pain, or a short life without it!”  The question in the reading indeed looked obvious, and yet it reflects central themes of Taoism: going with the flow, not stressing out, and partaking of a lifestyle that can lengthen life and lessen pain, even if that lifestyle may look counter-intuitive to possessive, accumulating people like us.  The readings also shared a scenario of what one can do when one is experiencing illness and death: simply take a step back and say, “This looks interesting!”

My third exposure to Taoism was during my first year of divinity school.  One of my roommates had a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.  Another roommate shared that he struggled to read the Tao Te Ching, so he fell back on The Tao of Pooh.  I borrowed The Tao of Pooh out of curiosity.  I wondered if Christianity was a better religion than Taoism, or if there were overlapping themes between Taoism and Christianity.  Hoff in the book treats Winnie the Pooh as a Taoist.  Whereas Tigger is high energy, Eyore complains, and Rabbit intensely calculates, Pooh just is.  Pooh is relaxed and has no pretense, and things usually fall into place when he is the protagonist.

This background equipped me to read the Tao Te Ching, without being utterly confused by what I was reading.  At least it provided me with an idea of some of Taoism’s basic beliefs.  Some passages still perplexed me, though, and I am sure that there are still gaps in my understanding.

That said, here are some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching:

A.  According to the Tao Te Ching, where was the Tao, and the material world is a manifestation of the Tao.  That made me wonder if Taoism is panentheistic or pantheistic.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I was reminded of Proverbs 8, which presents wisdom as a key figure in God’s creation of all things; wisdom, in a sense, is like the Tao: both are orderly, both bring shalom, both are moral, both relate to the natural order, etc.  The Tao Te Ching does not explicitly say that the Tao created the cosmos, however, but rather that the cosmos came from the Tao.  That could be consistent with emanationism: the idea that the cosmos is an emanation from God, rather than God’s creation.

B.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I had “problem of evil” questions.  If Taoism regards the natural order as good, I inquired, how would it account for the apparent evils of nature: animal violence, sickness, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.?  On one occasion, the Tao Te Ching seemed to regard vicious elements of nature (i.e., storms) as a brief gliche, as if the overall tone of the cosmos is one of peace and order and the violent elements are mere interruptions.  On another occasion, it said that humans interfere with the Tao and bring havoc as a result.  The Tao Te Ching has a clear answer for why there is human evil: humans disregard the Tao, with its path of peace, virtue, generosity, and humility, and they choose greed, violence, pride, and stress instead.  It was a little more obscure in accounting for natural evil.

C.  That said, there was an indication that people who are especially in touch with the Tao can manipulate nature.  Verse 50 says that, with respect to such a person, “tigers and bulls keep clear[,] weapons turn from him on the battlefield, rhinoceroses have no place to horn him, tigers find no place for claws, and soldiers have no place to thrust their blades.”  Dyer’s take-home application point is that “I am an immortal spiritual being having a temporary human experience.”  He may be interpreting this passage to mean that, when we do not fear death, we are invulnerable to threats: even if a tiger mangles us to death, so what?  We live forever anyway!  Indeed, eternal life and not being afraid of death are significant themes in the Tao Te Ching.  But, in my mind, verse 50 seemed to be saying more than that: that people can be so in touch with the Tao, that nothing in this life can hurt them.  They can be bullet-proof!  I thought of different things in reading this verse: the movie The Matrix (with the invulnerable Neo), the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun” (bullets went right through the Enterprise crew at the OK Corral!), Psalm 91’s affirmation that God will preserve God’s people from destruction and pestilence, and a statement I once heard from a pastor that, when you serve God, all of creation will serve you.

D.  The Tao Te Ching exhorts people to look within.  A number of conservative Christians recoil from such advice.  Look within?  Does not the author know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), that from it proceed all manners of sinful propensities and actions (Mark 7:21-23)?  Maybe, but the Bible also says that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and that the requirements of God’s law are written on people’s hearts and in their consciences (Romans 2:15).  In light of that, should we treat looking within as an utterly fruitless exercise?  In any case, in reading the Tao Te Ching’s exhortations to look within, I thought of the Hellenistic distinction between the logos within and the logos without: there is an order to the universe, but there is also an order inside of us that coincides with the order in the universe.

E.  Related to (D.), verse 67 has a puzzling statement: “The Tao is not something found at the marketplace or passed on from father to son.  It is not something gained by knowing or lost by forgetting.  If the Tao were like this, it would have been lost and forgotten long ago.”  I contrasted this passage with the Book of Proverbs, in which wisdom cries out in the marketplace and is passed down from parents to child.  There are some passages in the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of Proverbs—-verse 6, for example, presents the Tao as a female to which one should listen, which is similar to Proverbs’ portrayal of Lady Wisdom.  But verse 67 appeared different from Proverbs.  The Tao Te Ching may have a problem with wisdom being conceptualized as a path that is taught through tradition and family, seeing it instead as something that is inside of us and all around us.  At the same time, it does value teachers: humble people who highlight the way, often through their demeanor and their lives more than their words.

F.  The Tao Te Ching is critical of trying to become virtuous through rigorous obedience to rules.  It wants for people to yield to the Tao, which has a moral/ethical component, but it seems to believe that, if people have to obey rules to be moral, then something is wrong.  Virtue should flow more naturally than that.  There are verses that are rather explicit about this (i.e., 18, 67), but I think that this concept sheds light on an odd statement in verse 38: “When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.  When goodness is lost, there is morality.  When morality is lost, there is ritual.  Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos.”  In reading these passages, Pauline concepts come to mind: the idea that the law was a temporary measure to respond to, expose, and restrain sin.  The law could not cure sin, in Paul’s mind, but now believers have the Holy Spirit, who enables them to conform to God’s righteous requirements through a transformed nature.

G.  The Tao Te Ching struck me as politically libertarian.  I do not want to go so far as to suggest that it would support the government eviscerating the social safety net and allowing social Darwinism to take its course.  But it is critical of government intrusion.  To quote verse 75: “When taxes are too high, people go hungry.  When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.  Act for the people’s benefit; trust them, leave them alone.”  Incidentally, the college student who exposed me to the Tao Te Ching was a libertarian Republican.

H.  That said, I have read concerns that Taoism slows economic progress and is incompatible with capitalism.  Taoism supports a relaxed attitude, which lets things happen rather than making things happen, and which is contrary to greed and ambition.  These attitudes arguably run counter to the rushed pace of dog-eat-dog capitalism.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I wondered how practical it was.  It advocated keeping a low profile, painting a picture of the humble being exalted.  Can people truly succeed in this world without promoting themselves?  And do things really happen without us working and trying to influence them to happen?

There is overlap between Taoism and the Bible.  Proverbs 27:2 says that we should let others praise us and not our own mouth, and the Book of Proverbs often extols the virtue of silence.  Jesus in Matthew 6:34 says that we should not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  At the same time, the Book of Proverbs also stresses the work ethic, which can be reconciled with Western capitalism.

I think that there is some wisdom to the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, on these issues.  Humility can be attractive, for people may trust those who humbly desire to be of service rather than seeking their own exaltation.  I just wonder if such a path should be absolutized.  In this world, people who express and promote themselves are often the ones who advance.  And things do not always work well on their own, without some effort to influence things to happen through action.

I.    There is a lot of emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on emptiness.  A number of conservative Christians criticize Eastern religions for this.  “Eastern religion says that we should empty our minds, whereas the Bible says that we should fill our minds—-with God’s word.”  Some conservative Christians go so far as to suggest that emptying one’s mind creates a void that demons will be happy to inhabit!  The Tao Te Ching stresses positive concepts, such as virtue, generosity, and love for enemies.  It also suggests that people can enjoy the Tao, whatever their station is in life.  That sounds like something positive, not nothingness or emptiness.  Why, then, does the Tao Te Ching advocate emptiness?  I do not entirely understand this, but it may be using the concept of emptiness to highlight certain values: there is a value to clearing one’s mind every so often, for that can encourage relaxation; there is also the value of emptying oneself of pride.

J.  Verse 41 took me aback.  The first paragraph states: “A great scholar hears of the Tao and begins diligent practice.  A middling scholar hears of the Tao and retains some and loses some.  An inferior scholar hears of the Tao and roars with ridicule.  Without that laugh, it would not be the Tao.”

This may conflict with some of what I said in (E.), assuming I knew what I was talking about in (E.), which is not a guarantee!

This passage took me aback because it seemed to be criticizing the inferior scholar who laughs at the Tao, and yet it appeared to see value even in that laughter!  When a person laughs at the message of the Tao, then you know that you have the genuine article!  The reason may be that the Tao does advocate a counter-intuitive life, one of humility, generosity, and love for enemies.  Moreover, it maintains that such a path benefits the person who practices it.  A domesticated version of the Tao, which does not draw laughter or inspire a response of perplexity, is not the genuine article.  There are Christians who claim that the same can be said of Christianity.

K.  Verse 70 had some odd lines: “My words have an ancestor; my deeds have a lord.  The people have no knowledge of this, therefore they have no knowledge of me.  This is why the sage dresses plainly, even though his interior is filled with precious gems.”

How does the sage’s modest apparel relate to people’s lack of knowledge about the antiquity and majesty of the Tao?  If the sage wanted people to see the Tao as majestic, would he not wear fancy clothes rather than modest apparel?  Perhaps the passage is saying that the sage is approaching people where they are rather than attempting to dazzle them.  Dazzling them, when they are in no position to be dazzled, would be like throwing pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).  Jesus himself came to the world as a humble human being, rather than parading his exalted status.  People could relate to that and be more open to his teaching.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Ann Coulter on the Bombing of Syria

I only have one article that I want to share for my Current Events Write-Up this week.

Townhall: Lassie Come Home, by Ann Coulter. 

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter criticizes President Trump’s bombing of Syria, and she expresses reservations about war in the Middle East, period.

This is ironic, since she was a strong supporter of the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s Presidency.  Has she changed her mind on that?

In this particular column, she does not explicitly say.  On the one hand, one can get the impression from this column that she believes that the Iraq War and the War on Terror were justified, but not the bombing of Assad’s Syria.  To quote from the column:

“Assad is one of the least bad leaders in the entire Middle East. He’s not a murderous thug like Saddam, has no rape rooms, isn’t into jihad, protects Christians and is fighting ISIS. He provided us with intelligence on al-Qaida after 9/11. He does not have crazy Islamic police slapping women around or throwing gays off buildings. (That would be our beloved ally, Saudi Arabia.)  Trump was also correct about Assad’s opponents being far worse, containing large helpings of both ISIS and al-Qaida.”

On the other hand, there seems to be some acknowledgment in the column that regime change and war in Iraq did not work:

“We have never succeeded at turning a Third World dictatorship into a paradise. The history of these things is that removing a Middle Eastern strongman always makes things worse — for example, in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.”

“Our enemies — both foreign and domestic — would be delighted to see our broken country further weaken itself with pointless wars.  Was America strengthened by the Iraq War? The apparently never-ending Afghanistan War? Vietnam? This is how great powers die, which is exactly what the left wants.”

Is there a change of position here, or ambivalence?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Church Write-Up: Easter 2017

I went to two church services on Easter Sunday.  The first was the 8:30 am traditional service at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The second was a United Methodist church service.

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  I was expecting the 8:30 am traditional Lutheran service to consist mostly of elderly people, and for most of the people to be dressed up.  I also was not expecting too many people to be there, as I assumed that the 11:00 am contemporary service was what drew the crowds.  But the traditional service had a full house.  Most of the people there were elderly and middle-aged, but there were some young people.  And many people were not dressed up.  Some were, but the men who were not wearing a suit and tie wore khaki pants with their shirts tucked in.  (I don't recall if anyone wore jeans.)  I'll treat that as the dress code the next time I visit!

B.  I was unclear about what exactly to do during the communion part of the service.  Missouri Synod Lutherans serve closed communion, which means that not everyone can participate.  I read one Missouri Synod site, and it said the people who want to partake of communion should see the pastor beforehand so that he can know about them and their faith.  Our church bulletin said that, if we don't participate, we can go up anyway, cross our arms, and receive a blessing from the pastor.  I was not sure how exactly that worked, and I didn't want to do it wrong, so I stayed in my pew.  I was sitting near the back corner of the sanctuary, so I didn't expect any awkwardness.  I was quietly reading my bulletin, and an usher said, "Excuse me."  I looked up, he wanted to know if I was going up, and I just shook my head and said "No thank you."

C.  The pastor's sermon was about not being afraid.  There were two parts of his sermon that especially stood out to me.  First, the pastor was talking about the "nones," those who do not have a religion.  The pastor wondered what they were doing that Easter morning.  The pastor speculated that they were trying to get the most out of their day, dealing with the joys and trials of life, perhaps realizing somewhere in their minds that they would one day die.  The pastor's question struck me as rather odd, as if it was treating the "nones" as some mysterious other.  "Does he know any nones?", I wondered.  Perhaps he was raised in the Christian faith and thus had limited familiarity with non-believers.  I am only speculating here!

Second, the pastor was telling about a woman with a severe anxiety disorder who challenged him after he preached a sermon against fear.  She thought that his sermon was making matters worse for her!  She could not help that she was afraid!  My ears perked up when the pastor said this, since I myself deal with fear, especially social anxiety.  The pastor said that he told her a story about a young man with anxiety, who got up before the congregation and told them that his anxiety would not keep him from proclaiming his Savior.  Speaking for myself, I am more fearful of interpersonal socializing than I am of getting up in front of a congregation, so I wonder how what the pastor said would fit my own situation.  Still, I can appreciate his point, on some level: it's good to have someone or something that is beyond my fear, which I can grasp.

D.  I visited the United Methodist church about a year ago, after I moved to this area.  I was not expecting to be remembered after that long a time, but I walked into the church last Sunday and an older gentleman handed me a bulletin and said, "Did you have a good year?"  I said, "Thank you, sir," which was probably a bit off-putting, but what he had said to me only registered with me after I had taken my seat.  He remembered me from the last time I visited!

The pastor looked a lot different from how she looked the last time I had seen her.  And I mean that I could not even tell that she was the same person, except for her voice!  I looked up at the stage and wondered where the pastor was!  She was thinner, her hair was longer and grayer, and she was wearing a long dress rather than her pastoral robe.

E.  The pastor was preaching about the different reactions to Jesus' resurrection in the Gospels.  The disciple Jesus loved (whom she assumed was John) saw the empty tomb and believed easily.  Peter was confused.  Mary Magdalene wondered where Jesus' body was.

The pastor said that, at that service, there are as many reactions to Jesus' resurrection as there are people there.  And she acknowledged that believing in Jesus' resurrection could be difficult, since, in our experience, the dead remain dead.  That goes with people, and it goes with pets.  She asked us to consider what our response is to Jesus' resurrection, and, maybe this coming week, we can try to have a little more faith.

I liked the openness of that sermon.  I have inside of myself different reactions to Jesus' resurrection, positive and negative.  It can be used to support Christian exclusivism, which says that non-believers go to hell, and that frightens me.  But I appreciate the story itself: the disciples were saddened by Jesus' death, both because they lost their friend, teacher, and Messiah, and also because it looked as if evil and corruption had won out.  But it didn't, for Jesus rose.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: Divine Will and Human Choice, by Richard A. Muller

Richard A. Muller.  Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

I will quote the description of the book on Amazon, then I will provide my impressions of it.

“This fresh study from an internationally respected scholar of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras shows how the Reformers and their successors analyzed and reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Richard Muller argues that traditional Reformed theology supported a robust theory of an omnipotent divine will and human free choice and drew on a tradition of Western theological and philosophical discussion. The book provides historical perspective on a topic of current interest and debate and offers a corrective to recent discussions.”

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  Richard Muller addresses a variety of scholarly debates.  Was Thomas Aquinas a determinist or a libertarian?  Was John Calvin a fatalist, who believed that God caused every single event?  Are the terms libertarian and compatibilist truly helpful in conceptualizing Reformed thought, since the Reformers Muller profiles held a rigorous conception that the human will was free (like libertarians), while also believing that God foreordained human choices (like compatibilists)?  Were the Reformers drawing primarily from the medieval Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus, or from a variety of medieval sources?  And how consistent are Reformed views on divine sovereignty and free will with Aristotelian and Catholic medieval thought?  The book also highlights diversity among the Reformers: for instance, not every Reformer thought that God was determined by nature to make certain decisions, for some maintained (as Aquinas before them) that God had free will and could glorify Godself in a variety of settings, not just the setting that God actually chose.  In addressing these issues, the book is informative and performs a scholarly function.

B.  The description says that the book concerns how Reformers “reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom.”  Based on my understanding of their attempts to reconcile these concepts, which Muller discusses, I would not say that their attempts were particularly convincing or successful.  Many of the attempts emphasized secondary causes, meaning that God does not directly cause every human decision but uses means.  Some stressed the dependence of the will on God for its existence.  Some probed the relation between the intellect and the will.  Some said that God could foreordain contingent choices.  In my opinion, these solutions did not directly answer a key question: If God foreordains that people make certain choices, how can they choose otherwise?

C.  The book is rather advanced and difficult, with elaborate prose.  Laypersons can still learn from this book, however.  The book does tend to repeat certain themes.  One such theme is that the decision that people make is the decision that exists, not alternative decisions, even though people had the potency to make those alternative decisions.  The book’s conclusion was also effective in tying themes together.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Write-Up: Confucius' Analects

I recently read Confucius’ Analects.  Specifically, I read the Penguin Classics version, for which D.C. Lau was the translator.  Lau also provided an informative introduction.

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  I will quote a paragraph from the back cover because that paragraph provides a cogent summary of Confucius’ thought.  I did read the entire book, though!

“‘How dare I claim to be a sage or a benevolent man?’

“By constructing the philosophy expressed through The Analects, Confucius might well dare to make such a claim.  The Analects are a collection of Confucius’ saying, compiled by his pupils shortly after his death in 497 B.C., and they reflect the extent to which Confucius held up a moral ideal for all men.  The aim is the perfection of one’s moral character, the method one of arduous pursuit of such moral attributes as benevolence, wisdom, courage; the result is no recompense in this life or the next—-to follow the Way must be its own reward.  A harsh philosophy perhaps, but shining through it is the splendid intellect and spirit of one of the most reasonable and humane thinkers of all time.”

B.  The Analects remind me of the biblical Book of Proverbs.  Proverbs instructs people about how to impress authorities and the importance of being humble.  As the summary above says, Confucius believed that people should follow the Way, even if they do not receive a reward in this life or the hereafter.  Yet, the Analects do contain a measure of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” (not a quotation): a belief that following certain rules can bring a person advancement.  There is also a notion that, when the Way is prevalent in society, adherents to the Way should be prospering.  But there is also a belief in contentment where one is, as one is nourished by the Way itself and finds a home therein.

C.  An idea that appears more than once in The Analects is that a ruler can bring out the best in his subjects by being good and compassionate rather than attempting to inspire fear.  A ruler is to be concerned about the well-being of his subjects, whatever their stations in life, and Confucius also supported trying to reform convicts rather than hastily executing them.  As I read these passages, I was comparing them with the biblical portrayal of God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God rules people benevolently, yet they respond with stubborn disobedience; the Bible appears more pessimistic than Confucius about human nature.  God also rules through fear, in a sense, since the Torah in the Hebrew Bible prescribes the death penalty for all sorts of offenses, and the prophets forecast woes as divine punishment for disobedience.  In the New Testament, beliefs about human stubbornness in the face of divine benevolence as well as divine retribution persist, yet there is also a notion that the law, with its condemnations, is a dead end in terms of encouraging people to change, so now God focuses on grace.

D.  I was comparing Confucius’ political philosophy with God’s governance according to the Bible, but what was Confucius’ theology?  Did he regard the divine realm as benevolent?  There is a passage in The Analects that states that Confucius did not discuss the gods.  Although Confucius does not present a theology, there are still assumptions about the gods in The Analects.  There are gods in heaven and below.  People should sacrifice to these gods, and sometimes this occurs at mealtimes.  People can displease Heaven, in which case they have nowhere to go with their prayers.  Overall, they should keep a respectful distance from the gods.  You would think that Confucius saw the gods as beings to appease, not so much as the embodiment of virtue.  Yet, Confucius states at one point that Heaven placed virtue within him.

E.  Another theme that recurs in The Analects is the importance of rites, which include sacrifices to the gods, honoring ancestors, and civic rituals.  For Confucius, the rites ground people in the essentials.  They humble those who are of high station.  In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus accuses scribes and Pharisees of legalism: of being rigorous in observing rites of the Torah while missing the point on such vital principles as justice and compassion.  The apostle Paul believed that the Torah served a purpose at one stage of God’s plan but with the coming of Jesus has been superseded, at least partially.  In The Analects, Confucius was sensitive to such concerns, within his own context.  In places, Confucius seemed to maintain that literal observance of the rites were not enough, that motivation and character were important.  Observing the rites in an obsequious manner was not the proper path, for Confucius.  Confucius also held that there could be flexibility in observing the rites and following the Way, since historical contexts and situations varied over time.

F.  In some places, Confucius could be quite rigid: be courageous!  In other places, though, he recognizes human flaws and foibles, both his own and those of his disciples.  He realizes that he is a work in progress.  But he also acknowledges what he believes to be his strengths.  Moreover, his compassion and mercy notwithstanding, he only spends his time teaching students who are willing to learn, and who demonstrate that willingness by trying to figure things out on their own.  Confucius’ disciples varied in their level of character and aptitude: some mastered virtue quickly, some missed the point at times and needed correction, and some failed to think before speaking or acting.  In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples often did not understand what Jesus was saying.  The agenda behind the portrayal of a master’s disciples may be an interesting topic to research.

G.  I put a question mark beside some of Confucius’ statements.  I had to think about them, and sometimes I hit a dead end.  One passage that I contemplated is 4:3: “The Master said, ‘It is only the benevolent man who is capable of liking or disliking other men.”  How so?  The conclusion I reached was that, when we are benevolent, we judge people according to their character, how they are.  We like or dislike them, in short.  When we lack benevolence, by contrast, we value them according to how well they benefit us.  We are not liking or disliking them, per se, but rather are focusing on our own benefit.  I could be wrong on this, but that was my way of trying to make sense of what Confucius said there.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: Christ among Other Gods, by Erwin Lutzer

Erwin Lutzer.  Christ among Other Gods: A Defense of Christ in an Age of Tolerance.  Moody: 1994, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin Lutzer is senior pastor as Chicago’s Moody Church and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Loyola University.  In Christ among the Gods, Lutzer argues that Jesus Christ in the New Testament makes unique and better claims than those made by other religions.  He criticizes the Jesus Seminar and New Age portrayals of Christ, defends the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection as an indicator for the truth of Christianity, and critiques Christian inclusivism, which holds that non-Christians can go to heaven without having knowingly accepted Christ in this life.  Lutzer goes through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus—-not so much in a biographical sense, but more to highlight the uniqueness and authority of Jesus, present the Gospel as one of grace and not works, critique relativistic pluralism, respond to criticisms of Christian doctrines (i.e., the virgin birth), and offer eschatological speculations.  On eschatology, Lutzer forecasts that the current push towards pluralism will lead to the Antichrist religion and the stigmatization of Christians as intolerant, even dangerous.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  Lutzer often says that the biblical Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony, but he never defends that claim.  A lot of the biblical scholarship that he cites is dated: for example, he mentions Sir William Ramsay’s conclusion that the Book of Acts is historically trustworthy, and Ramsay lived in 1852-1916!  Lutzer still makes fairly decent arguments and asks good questions: Why would the Gospel authors invent an incredible virgin birth story to counter charges that Jesus was born illegitimately (for Lutzer, they did not)?    How would the notion of Jesus’ divinity arise in a strictly monotheistic Jewish culture (for Lutzer, the answer is that Jesus actually rose from the dead)?  Lutzer’s arguments are not infallible: the Gospel authors could have been modeling Jesus’ birth on miraculous births in the Hebrew Bible, and Bart Ehrman has argued that the raw materials for seeing Jesus as divine existed in Second Temple Judaism.  Still, there may be something to Lutzer’s argument: even Bart Ehrman maintains that the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection (obtained through visions) contributed to their belief in Jesus’ divinity!

How could Lutzer have made the book better, in terms of interacting with biblical scholarship?  He could have referred to N.T. Wright’s arguments on the resurrection, Ben Witherington III’s work on Acts, and Richard Bauckham’s work on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony and the early Christian conception of Jesus as divine.  Lutzer could have cited common ground between himself and Bart Ehrman on the significance of a belief in Jesus’ resurrection in conceptions of Jesus as divine.
Granted, Lutzer’s book first came out in 1994, before a lot of these books were even written.  Still, is it too much to ask that the book contain at least some updates when it is being re-released?  The updates would not entail a lot of revision: Lutzer can still make the same points, but he would cite additional (or, in some cases, different) scholars and elaborate, in places.

B.  Did Lutzer utilize or critique sources fairly and accurately?  He probably tried to do so.  I would be interested in tracking down some of his sources and reading the quotations in context (i.e., a New Age author’s defense of the plagues in the Book of Revelation, which Lutzer ties with the Antichrist’s coming persecution of Christians).  And, while Lutzer was rather dismissive of Clark Pinnock’s open-theism, treating it as Pinnock’s wishful thinking, Lutzer did address inclusivists’ Scriptural arguments.

In a few cases, Lutzer did seem to interpret sources in light of his agenda, when the sources may have been saying something else, or promoting a different ideology.  Two examples come to mind.  First, Lutzer refers to Augustine’s statement, “O, God, demand what you will, but supply what you demand!”  Lutzer states that Augustine “understood that we do not have to fear God’s high standard as long as He meets it for us” (page 151).  Augustine did not appear to be talking about Christ’s perfect righteousness being imputed to believers in that context (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 29), however, but rather was expressing his wish that God would make him continent.

Second, Lutzer frequently discusses his experiences at the Parliament of World Religions.  Lutzer argues that pluralism will lead to an attempt to merge the world religions together, while stigmatizing religions (like Christianity) that are narrow in their conception of truth.  But the mission statement of the Parliament of World Religions presents another picture, supporting religious diversity, rather than trying to merge religions into one.  It states: “The problem with seeking unity among religions is the risk of loss of the unique and precious character of each individual religious and spiritual tradition; this understanding is key to our framework.”

C.  Lutzer makes one argument that is effective, albeit frightening.  In critiquing Christian inclusivism, Lutzer argues that God does not necessarily act according to our conceptions of fairness.  Therefore, God may condemn non-believers to hell, even if many deem that to be unfair.  Many of us would expect a fair or loving God to deliver people from pain and catastrophe, Lutzer argues, but God does not always do that.  God also permits inequalities, as some people have more access to the truth of God than others.  Lutzer makes a good point: If there is a God, God does not always seem to be acting according to what we believe is fair, at least not in a manner that is apparent to us.  Lutzer still believes God has done beneficent things, though.

D.  Lutzer’s book was not incredibly deep.  He criticized Lessing’s statement that he would prefer a search for truth rather than having the truth, as well as people who leave Christianity in search of something deeper (in their eyes).  Lutzer seems to believe that truth and error are black and white, while characterizing Eastern religions as more open to contradictions (with exceptions).  Lutzer’s arguments are good, but they are not incredibly satisfying, from an emotional standpoint.  Sure, one needs the truth to avoid falling into a ditch, but cannot one at least sympathize with Lessing’s desire for a search for truth, an intellectual adventure of learning, growth, and exploration?  Cannot one at least understand an openness to paradox, as opposed to strict binary thinking?  Christianity itself can be deep and paradoxical, in areas!

Still, I did gain some new and interesting insights from Lutzer’s book.  For example, Lutzer raises the possibility that there may have been multiple Antichrists throughout history.  Lutzer states that Satan does not know when Christ will return, so Satan may have attempted to raise up the Antichrist in the past.  Hitler may have been an example of this, for Lutzer.  I have questions about this proposal: Hitler did not try to make peace with Israel, which Lutzer believes the Antichrist will do, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  Yet, Lutzer’s proposal is intriguing, and perhaps tempting for one who wants to reconcile Christianity with historical criticism of the Bible (not that Lutzer has that agenda).  Maybe people like Nero, Domitian, Hitler, etc. were Satan’s attempts to raise up the Antichrist in the past!  Could we even go before the historical Jesus Christ with this proposal, seeing Antiochus Epiphanes as a similar Antichrist figure?  Could this be a key to seeing apocalyptic literature as discussing its own historical contexts, while still being divine revelation?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Church Write-Up: Christ as Driver, Christ as Lifeguard

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday.  The pastor preached about Luke 19:28-44.  The theme was making Jesus the Lord of one’s life.

In Luke 19:28-44, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, and a multitude of Jesus’ disciples acclaim his entrance, celebrating him as a king.  Jesus then sees Jerusalem and weeps for it, forecasting its downfall.  The reason for its downfall, according to the passage, is that it failed to know what made for peace and to recognize the time of its visitation.

The pastor was likening Jerusalem to Christians, or professing Christians, who fail to make Jesus the Lord of their life.  They want Jesus to ride around in the car with them as they are driving, but they do not want Jesus to be in the driver’s seat.  They do not want Jesus to lead them.  And the result has been disastrous: the pastor likened nominal Christians to people burning up the food on the stove, then burning up the stove itself, all because they are doing things their way rather than obeying Jesus as Lord of their life.

Similarly, the pastor said, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, people celebrated and acclaimed him, but they did not understand who he truly was.  They had their own conception of the Messiah as a political liberator from Rome, whereas Jesus came as a different kind of Messiah: one who wanted to rule people spiritually, such that they would become regenerated and righteous.  The crowds wanted to attach Jesus to their own agenda, whereas Jesus desired to set the agenda.

In reading the Gospels, I can sympathize with what the pastor is saying.  Jesus was calling people to repent.  If the Pharisees who were guilty of the sins that Jesus mentions in Matthew 23 repented of those sins, the world would have been a better place!  But there were obstacles that stood in the way of their repentance: some of the scribes and Pharisees were unwilling to relinquish their riches, their positions of power, and the religious interpretations that affirmed those positions, for that gave them their sense of worth and identity.  They would have to give up their sense that they were righteous and superior to others.  There were also Jews who wanted to overthrow the Romans, but Jesus was advocating another way.  Because Jews tried to overthrow the Romans, the Romans crushed Jerusalem.

I can look at the Gospels and say that it would have made sense for the characters to accept Jesus as Lord of their life, as difficult as that may have been.  In saying this, I am assuming the Gospel stories as they stand, particularly in their depiction of the Pharisees, although there are historians who will question the Gospels on this.  Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong, but I am simply entering the world of the stories, seeing if they can spiritually instruct or edify me.

While I can read the Gospel stories and say that the characters should have accepted Jesus as Lord, following Jesus’ agenda rather than their own, I find such a proposition to be unrealistic in my own life.  Jesus’ commands look to unrealistic for me to follow.  Why can’t Jesus give me space to be human, rather than commanding perfection?  I have tried to be the perfect evangelical in the past, I think to myself, and I have fallen short.

I am currently reading Erwin Lutzer’s Christ Among the Gods, and Lutzer contrasts Jesus with other religious leaders.  Jesus claimed to be the sinless savior, Lutzer argues, whereas other religious leaders—-Buddha, Mohammad, the Dali Lama, etc.—-acknowledged that they were sinful.  I will add to that list Confucius, since I am reading Confucius’ Analects, and Confucius is quite candid about his own flaws and shortcomings (as well as his strengths)!  According to Lutzer, Jesus is not shouting commands to us on the shoreline while we are drowning, nor is Jesus drowning with us.  Rather, Jesus rescues us.  Jesus is the only one who can.

Maybe Lutzer’s argument can be nitpicked, but I can identify with what he is saying, since I have felt spiritually helpless.  Romans 5:6 comes to my mind: while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.  So does Romans 8:3: the law was powerless because our flesh was weak, but Jesus came and condemned sin in the flesh.  I still feel weak, though.  God’s standards appear to me to be an impossibility.  And, to make matters worse, Paul and Christians seem to suggest that this should not be the case for those who have the Holy Spirit; or that depends on if you interpret Romans 7 as the thoughts of Paul before or after his conversion!

I’ll stop here.  I realize that this post ends on a downer!  At the same time, I will say that, at this moment at least, I see value in becoming more Christlike, even if I will fall short of perfection (or even a C-) in doing so.

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