March 26, 2005

Easter Egg Christianity

The other day I noticed a Newsweek poll regarding belief in the resurrection. I was astonished to find that in this secular venue 81% had affirmed a belief in this event. 81% of the population believes that Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead into an immortal, glorified body, thus vindicating His teaching and claims to be the Messiah and the very Son of God? I don't think so! Not if I'm reading my cultural cues properly anyways.

So how could this number be so high? I think part of the reason is hinted at in another Newsweek poll regarding belief in the virgin birth. In this one only 66% could manage buy-in. That's an odd discrepancy; you'd think that if someone could accept a return from the dead, then the virgin birth would be no problem, right? But the difference between the two is a matter of interpretive opportunity.

The resurrection has been a rather malleable concept in modern times. We classical Christians understand it to be a tangible, historical event, but there are many liberals who feel equally comfortable embracing it within their "faith tradition" as a mere metaphor for "spiritual renewal." It is such a muddle that in a debate over the reality of the resurrection between John Dominic Crossan (of "Jesus Seminar" fame) and William Lane Craig, Crossan was so stymied over what Craig meant by "real" that he stammered (something like), "you mean, would we see anything if we had a video camera outside the tomb?" On the other hand, the virgin birth is a bit harder to spin in metaphorical terms than the resurrection, and there doesn't seem to be as concerted an effort to do so. This is probably due to the fact that Paul threw down his gauntlet of faith on the resurrection itself ("if Christ has not been raised . . . then your faith is in vain"). And what a silly thing to do if he's really just authoring mythology; he'd probably have kept his head if he just went the "spiritual renewal" route.

It is not to say that the virgin birth is merely incidental theology (it's not only clearly taught in Scripture, but is philosophically necessary), but the resurrection is the lynchpin to all of Christianity. And this is why it is troubling that so many claim to believe in it yet do not exhibit the fruit of that belief. In fact, Barna has only 7% of the population qualifying as "evangelical" Christians, and even just 38% qualifying for the more generous categorization of "born again." What, then, should follow from a belief in the resurrection?

Since the resurrection is a supernatural event, this leads to numerous cascading, logical conclusions. First, if such a supernatural thing can happen, then there must be something "super" natural to cause it – God exists. Second, this God did not raise just anyone from the dead; He raised this One, Jesus. Implicit in this act is God's stamp of approval on the works and teachings of the man. Third, Jesus made many bold claims about Himself, mankind, and Final Things. Fourth, this seems like important stuff in the economy of God; there is something that God is trying to get across to mankind here. Fifth, if God is superintending these things, and they are commended to our attention, then we can expect a reliable testimony of them to be preserved.

So a person believing in the resurrection should have good grounds for believing that Jesus actually said things like, "Before Abraham was, I am" and, "No man comes to the Father except through Me" and, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven." How is it, then, that so many Christians can go to their Easter pageants and light their candles and sing their hymns while also denying potent realities like Jesus' unique divinity, the exclusivity of Christianity, or the doctrine of hell? The answer must be one of two things. One, they do not genuinely believe the resurrection to be a literal, historical event, i.e., they are simply immersed in the cultural expression of their "faith traditions." Two, they have not yielded to the logical implications of their profession of belief. Either this is a cavalier belief or it is simply an intellectual assent absent of any authentic faith commitment.

But for those who would reject or diminish the truth of the resurrection, Paul has these stern words to offer: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. . . . If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

What is Christianity without the resurrection? It is but a hollow shell of faith language and festive color that may be filled with any ideological confection that appeals to our individual tastes. It is the difference between the hen's egg and the jellybean-filled plastic shell: one is the natural and nutritious exemplar of life; the other is hollow of form and content – the product of man. What eggs will you be gathering this Easter?

March 22, 2005

Schiavoan Rhetoric

I know that everyone is throwing in their two cents on the Terri Schindler Schiavo case, but I can't resist offering my own responses to some of the most frequent statements I hear from those in support of the removal of her feeding tube.

"She's being kept alive artificially. She should just be allowed to die in peace"

First of all, she's not on "life support." She's just being fed with a tube, and even that was inserted originally as a time-saving measure. Being kept alive "artificially" involves cardio-pulmonary assistance and tends to be reserved for flat-line cases (i.e., the brain-dead or comatose). Terri is still there; she's just seriously mentally disabled. She's not "dying" any more than you or I; she's just being provided with basic nourishment, which she has limitations on providing for herself. To remove this and let her die "naturally" would the functional (and moral) equivalent of withholding sustenance from an infant or a paraplegic, who are also dependant on such care. We have a name for such treatment: it's called "criminal neglect." As far as dying "in peace," well, I've never heard starvation and dehydration put in such genial terms, but I suppose by "peace" they really mean "lack of public protest."

"She's in a vegetative state, if she's not going to get any better then..."

I think the persistent vegetative state (PVS) assessment has been highly overrated, but I guess you can use that label however you like if you simply define your criteria to suit your target diagnosis. The question is: even if Terri could make some progress (and there is good reason to think she might) does it really matter if she doesn't get any better? Is it only those with a certain "quality of life" whose lives we care about? If human life, in general, is intrinsically valuable, then there's never a person so broken that they fail to warrant basic care and compassion. And where is the virtue of compassion ever expressed if not toward those with a (temporarily or permanently) diminished "quality of life." Was Dr. Frederick Treves a hero or a villain for caring for Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) rather than letting him "die in peace" in that Liverpool train station? If we begin to measure life by its "quality," then heaven help our infirm elderly and the "imperfect" children of the future. Of course, this would all be spun as acts of compassion. "We just want to spare them their misery," they shall say. I think it turns out less to be a desire to put them out of their misery and more a matter of putting them out of ours. Our "quality of life" is surely much better without being burdened by the clinical outcasts of society. For gosh sakes, we hardly have the patience to listen to our elders discuss the mundane aches and pains of normal aging.

"Would you want to live like that?"

Of course not, but that's not the point. I wouldn't want to live on food stamps or in Greenland, but that doesn't mean you should kill me! The question is: if you were in that condition what would be the right thing to do? In Terri's case, terminating her life is not just "letting her die," but is, rather, an aggressive act of withholding basic care (food & water). So if we were to agree that this should be done to us, then we are sanctioning, in effect, our own suicide. Now, it may be a suicide with more "justification" than most, but it would be suicide nonetheless. And if you're good with suicide for a Shiavoan hardship case, what justification would you have for denying it to someone whose "quality of life" is diminished by a lost love or a failed career? If we're going to go this route, why aren't we debating over making lethal medications available for such cases? I think it is because if we were arguing over whether or not to give Terri the Kool-Aid, we'd see a big shift in the poll results on this issue. But be assured, this level of debate is the next thing on the public horizon.

As an interesting aside, I think most who are on the side of terminating Terri's life happen to be against the death penalty, which is odd because not only have these inmates forfeit their lives by virtue of their crimes (Terri is innocent remember), but their "quality of life" is unquestionably compromised. Let's not be selective about our view of the sanctity of life.

"Just let her die with dignity"

Again, I don't find starvation to be a very "dignified" way out. And if we are concerned with preserving the "dignity" of people, then we may as well start crafting our "Logan's Run" society right now. Remember this old movie where people were exterminated once they reached the ripe old age of 30? Dignity is an awful subjective thing, but I'll lay odds that it won't be the individual making the ultimate assessment of what is "dignified" enough to survive the culling of the herds. And those who are the prime candidates for such things don't tend to make it to the voting booths anyways.

Another thing about "dignity" is that it implies some intrinsic value to human life for which we should have concern for its dignity. But "intrinsic worth" plays against the idea that humans may be killed for reasons of inconvenience or hardship. Life is full of indignities that must be suffered along the way. Such is the nature of life, and, indeed, such may be an essential ingredient to the very point of life.

"Trying to keep her alive is playing God"

This is the strangest statement of all. As I've pointed out above, she's not "dying," so nobody is trying to stand in the way of a natural dying process. That's really the only situation in which this statement could hope to make sense. It seems more reasonable to assume that killing someone is "playing God." If this were not so, then we would be forced to believe that every time a doctor removes a tumor or a mother breast feeds her hungry infant they are "playing God." And as for what God might be "playing" in this case, I'm inclined to think that if He wanted Terri dead He'd have taken her down some 15 years ago. Am I to believe that He botched the job and needs the help of her apathetic husband? Now, which God are we talking about here?

For more in-depth reading on this topic, see these excellent blog entries at Stand To Reason:
Would you want to live that way? (part 1)
Does Terri have a right to die? (part 2)
Is a feeding tube extraordinary means? (part 3)

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March 01, 2005

Regarding Gnosticism

Question:
Can you recommend resources that directly refute Gnosticism?

Answer:
A timely and relevant question in light of the revived interest in the Gnostic "gospels," due to the work of figures like Elaine Pagels ("Beyond Belief") and Dan Brown ("The DaVinci Code").

Let me first start with a brief summary of Gnosticism. Here's one I've found that will do nicely:

"A combination of the philosophy of Plato and Eastern mystery religions, Gnostics believe salvation comes from knowing (gnosis), especially knowledge of secret, hidden teachings. The early Christian Gnostics claimed their secret information gave them great insight to true Christianity. Some claimed to have wisdom that Christ gave in secret. There were (and are) multiple groups of Gnostics, some denying the divinity of Christ, others the humanity. Most identified the God of the Old Testament with the evil diety who they believed created the material world in which souls were trapped; they tended to revere those who opposed him."

Unfortunately, Gnosticism tends to be a rather broad camp, so if someone is attempting to advocate for this religious perspective they are obligated to first give an account of which particular flavor of Gnosticism they are advancing and why that one.

The authority of Gnosticism is grounded in its claim to be the true expression of the teachings of Jesus. That is to say, Gnosticism is allegedly the true Christian heir and what we know of as "orthodox" Christianity is simply the muddleheaded usurper and historical victor. Probably the best approach to answering Gnostic advocates is to make the case for the superior reliability and authority of the Biblical documents, which are most unfriendly to the doctrines of Gnosticism. Let me offer some helpful points to be made in this discussion.

Most scholars (even skeptical ones) now admit that the New Testament documents were authored in the First Century and come out of the heart of the Christian community at that time. There is zero evidence that the Gnostic documents are equally early works. Most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) have traditionally dated them to the 2nd - 4th Centuries. They do not have the same pedigree as the canonical texts, i.e., there is no line of descent from the Apostles to these texts like there is for the canonical works (we have extra-biblical writings discussing authorship in fact).

The Gnostics themselves referenced the canonical Gospels and seemed to have no problems with them. It was just their mystical interpretations of them and their added theology that led them down the path of heresy. Since both classical Christianity and Gnosticism have these texts "in common," it seems only logical to look at these established texts to begin arbitrating the dispute. Unfortunately, when we compare these with the Gnostic "gospels" the discrepancies quickly become apparent.

Gnosticism is an absolute break with the Jewish tradition of the time of Jesus, while classical Christianity is a complement to it. If no theological ties can be established to Judaism, then we are essentially talking about the introduction of a brand new religion. The Gnostics were keen to avoid this, and for this reason they engaged in extensive historical and theological gymnastics to attempt to discredit or symbologize the Old Testament.

Christianity is often accused of plagiarizing its theology and stories from the ideas and mythology of the surrounding culture, but in reality it is Gnosticism that is far more in line with the mythology and philosophies of the Greco-Roman culture.

It is interesting to point out that Gnostic beliefs are even more incredible than those of classical Christianity. Someone opposed to classical Christianity may find, upon investigation, that ancient Gnosticism is not as palatable as they first imagined. For example, Gnosticism rejects the Christian idea of one good creator God in favor of a complex cascading series of heavens and gods (the Pleroma), with the creator of the material world being imperfect and even, perhaps, evil. Gnosticism asserts that matter is actually inferior and corrupt, and so they tended to be more or less ascetic (i.e., they denied the pleasures of the flesh). They had some rather strange views of Jesus. Most skeptics would like to merely humanize Jesus, but the Gnostics merely tamper with the nature of His divinity (e.g., He's some lower-order being in the Pleroma) or suggest rather arcane things about His humanity (e.g., His body was really just a ghost). The Gnostics were not very egalitarian. Not all had, or were capable of receiving, the hidden knowledge (gnosis). Even that knowledge which was required to attain "heaven" was rather tedious and cryptic -- far less encouraging and accessible than the simple Gospel of Grace found in classical Christianity. Additionally, feminist theology seems to be rather fond of Gnosticism, but this only makes sense if one is ignorant of, or intentionally suppresses, the anti-feminine tendencies of the Gnostics. Take, for example, this passage from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: "Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."

And for one more example of the questionable character of the non-canonical texts, let me quote something from the "Gospel of Peter":

"And early in the morning as the Sabbath dawned, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region roundabout to see the sepulchre that had been sealed. Now in the night whereon the Lord's day dawned, as the soldiers were keeping guard two by two in every watch, there came a great sound in the heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descend thence, shining with a great light, and drawing near unto the sepulchre. And that stone which had been set on the door rolled away of itself and went back to the side, and the sepulchre was opened and both of the young men entered in. When therefore those soldiers saw that, they waked up the centurion and the elders (for they also were there keeping watch); and while they were yet telling them the things which they had seen, they saw again three men come out of the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following, after them. And of the two they saw that their heads reached unto heaven, but of him that was led by them that it overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying: Hast thou preached unto them that sleep? And an answer was heard from the cross, saying: Yea"

These kinds of accounts make the Biblical Gospels seem almost mundane by comparison. It is easier to see the Gnostic texts as being corrupted or mythologized versions of the canonical texts than vise versa.

Here are some worthy articles for further study on the issue of Gnosticism:

This one is a "short" article from one of our partner ministries:
http://www.probe.org/docs/gnostic.html

Here is a more exhaustive treatment of the subject in a two-part series from the Christian Research Journal:
http://www.equip.org/free/DG040-1.htm
http://www.equip.org/free/DG040-2.htm

And if you are looking for more extensive materials I could recommend numerous books, but that would depend on what angle you are coming from on this issue. For example, if you need to defend the canon of Scripture over/against the Gnostic texts, I'd recommend books on the reliability of the Bible and the making of the canon by people like F.F. Bruce, Craig Blomberg, or Norman Geisler. If you simply wanted to defend against charges made in a book like The DaVinci Code, I'd recommend something like Richard Abanes', The Truth Behind the DaVinci Code.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN