Friday, September 30, 2011

John the Baptist (3)

Previous posts in this series were 1) Looking for a Messiah and 2) The Restoration of Israel.

Into this context comes John the Baptist.  Of all the Jewish groups of the day, he looks the most like an Essene.  He is off in the desert wearing the clothes of a prophet like Elijah.  He is actually baptizing not far from Qumran, a conservative Essene community. [4]  He is preaching the approaching kingdom of God, the restoration of God's people.  Once again, of all the Jewish groups we know from the time, the Essenes most seem to have had this emphasis from time to time.

But many Pharisees probably did too.  Of course, most Jews in Palestine did not belong to any group of this sort.  At their peak, there may not have been more than 6,000 Pharisees and 4,000 Essenes.  Like today, most people were simply doing their best to get by, farming their land and feeding their children.  We should not think that the latest Pharisaic idea on purity made the average dinner conversation of your average Jew at the time, any more than philosophy is a big dinner conversation in most of our homes.

John arguably baptized at about the place where Joshua led Israel into Canaan.  In itself this speaks of the restoration of the nation.  The gospels remember him by way of texts like Isaiah 40:3-5.  Although New Testament authors did not always think of the original context of a passage when they quoted them, the context of Isaiah 40 fits John's situation well.  Isaiah 40 was originally a call to captive Israel in Babylon to come home from exile.  Be comforted, Israel, for God is calling you home.  Make a bee line through the desert.  Lower the mountains, raise the valleys, straighten out the road so that you can get home as quickly as possible.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke also remember John in relation to Malachi 3:1, whose context is a messenger who comes to warn that God is coming to judge his people and the temple in particular.  The Essenes in particular had serious problems with the high priests and temple administration of their day.  In fact, their very origins may very well have involved a split with the temple, with their founding leader coming out on the losing side of the argument. [5]

These two Scriptures alone give us a very plausible sense of what John the Baptist was doing there along the Jordan River.  He was a messenger announcing both the coming judgment of God on Israel for its sin yet also proclaiming its coming restoration as a nation.  The appropriate response was repentance for sin, accompanied by a symbolic washing in the river that symbolized Israel's transition from the wilderness to the land.  The baptism stood for washing their sins, with God's forgiveness accompanying.

The Jewish historian Josephus mentions John the Baptist. [6] As we would expect, he sterilizes his description somewhat, arguably softening some of the more nationalistic dimensions to John's message.  So John preached virtue, righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God.  Josephus removes the concrete element of Israel's restoration as a nation.  Even here, however, he mentions that John's baptism had a politically threatening element.  Josephus gives the potential for rebellion as the reason Herod Antipas put him to death.

John did not invent this sort of ritual washing.  You will find miqvaot all over Israel at the time.  These were baths for a person to purify themselves from all the different sorts of impurities found in Leviticus, like uncleanness from touching a dead body.  These were large enough to walk down into and be immersed, and probably "baptism" usually did involve immersion at the time.

However, a couple aspects of John's baptism seem quite unusual.  For one thing, John's baptism was not about ceremonial uncleanness.  It was a cleansing for sin, which would normally involve sacrifices in the temple.  Of course if John did not accept the current temple as legitimate, we can see how baptism for him and possibly at Qumran might arise as a temporary but appropriate substitute for sacrifice in the temple.

A second difference from the normal ritual washings is that John's baptism had somewhat of the nature of a one time event.  It is not that John necessarily would have refused a person who returned a second time but that the baptism was in preparation for the Day of the Lord, not an act to be repeated every time you sinned.  It was thus an "apocalyptic" baptism, one that related to soon coming, world changing events.

[4] There were many more Essenes than lived at Qumran on the northwest side of the Dead Sea.  The best scholarship on the subject now consider those who lived there to be just one group of Essenes--probably a more conservative and sectarian group than other Essenes who lived in cities.  Some Essenes married; some did not.  Think of how there are more and less conservative denominations within the same Christian traditions, such as the difference between United Methodist and Wesleyan or between Wesleyan and Bible Methodist.

[5] For an excellent overview of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, see James VanderKam's The Dead Sea Scrolls Today.

[6] Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lederhosen are not funny!

Giving many thanks to God today that our kids have found a school.  Because of the massive shifts in German education--not to mention the fact that Munich is a melting pot--all the schools are overcrowded as in so many of the states.  Also, Gymnasium education is highly sought, but has always been for a rather higher level academic student, rather than for everyone.

We are very grateful that the Gisela Gymnasium has made an exception for us, since we have not been able to get in anywhere else.  The principal was a Fulbrighter himself in New York.  We are only here for four months.  It is more for an experience than for grades.  They put Tom and Sophie both in a 6th year class.  We have the books so we can try to prep them.

Here's what a sixth year studies in a German Gymnasium such as this one: English, French, German, Math, Religion (catholic, Lutheran, or ethics for others), natural science, art, music, and sport.

It is of course Oktoberfest and lederhosen and drindls are everywhere on everyone of all ages.  Having grown up on the Pink Panther and Chevy Chase's European Vacation, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  But apparently they are pretty much the equivalent in Bavaria of a suit in the States.  In 1950, I'm told, this is what everyone wore to church on Sunday, and I guess they still do in rural south Bavaria.  The young people, I hear, find it perfectly normal.

Which leads me to a new Deep Thought by Ken Schenck: When Fritz showed up in his lederhosen, my first instinct was to laugh.  But then he said, "Ach so!  Lederhosen sind nicht lustig."  I don't know what he said, but I never laughed at lederhosen after that.

The Restoration of Israel (2)

Yesterday I summarized the evidence we have on Jewish expectations regarding a messiah.  Today we move on to the restoration of Israel.
If we only have evidence of some Jews looking for a messianic king, we have more evidence that some Jews were looking for a restored independence from foreign powers.  The two are related, of course, since a restored nation of Israel would need leadership, and an anointed king was a good option!  But there were options other than a king.  For example, throughout the period from Zechariah to Christ, the high priest was the highest political figure in Israel. [3]

And of course Israel did have kings in the century before Christ.  Herod the Great was king, for example.  In fact, Israel was relatively independent (though not completely) from 164-63BC.  When we look at the Jewish literature from the two centuries before Christ, we have to read various comments that look to the restoration of Israel in the light of what was going on at the time.

So the material that appears in the books of 1 Enoch (a book that Jude 14-15 quotes), generally looks to a time when God will remove sinners from Israel and restore it to its former grandeur.  The group that started this collection arguably became the Essenes eventually.  They looked to the purification of Israel, including the eventual purification of the temple, which they saw as defiled by wicked high priests.  We find these themes in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were arguably produced by Essenes as well.

The Psalms of Solomon, which we mentioned earlier, come from the time after 63BC when the Romans had taken over.  These psalms also look to the restoration of Israel, this time involving the removal and destruction of the Romans.  The revolutionaries who rose from time to time had this same goal in mind.  The sporadic attempts of individuals from time to time would eventually turn into the full blown Jewish War with Rome from AD66-73, in which the Romans destroyed Jerusalem (AD70).

These hopes were no doubt stoked by stories of the Maccabees. In 167BC, a Syrian king defiled the temple and tried to force the Jews not to circumcise or keep the food laws of Leviticus.  In revolt, a family that became known as the "maccabees" (the hammers) conducted a successful guerrilla campaign against the Syrians until, eventually, the Syrians let them continue these biblical practices.  The temple was restored and purified in 164BC, and Jews continue to celebrate this victory with Hanukkah today.

At the time of Christ, this story of individuals who were "zealous for the law" (cf. Rom. 10:2) no doubt inspired many who revolted against Roman rule in Israel, as well as many who hoped a day would come when another Judas Maccabeus would rise.  Indeed, we can see in this story why some would oppose Jesus and Paul, given their lax attitude toward keeping the finer points of the Jewish Law.  We can imagine that the pre-Christian Paul in fact drew some of his intensity from this "conservative" spirit of the age.

So while we cannot say that every Jew of the time was looking for the restoration of Israel, we can say that this expectation did emerge from time to time.  In the two centuries before Christ, the fortunes of Israel rose up and down.  When it was up, there was probably less thought about some dramatic shift of events yet to come.  For those in power, like the Sadducean class sometimes was, there was little need to hope for a messianic movement or change of political leadership.  But for certain Jews at certain times, the theme of God restoring Israel might easily re-emerge.

[3] For a short period of time, from 104-63BC, the high priests also held the title of king.

Why I Like Germany

I get asked "Why Germany?"  Yes, I love the breads and salami, the Kasespatzle and access to good Italian food.  Yes, for a long time I thought Schenck might be German (actually I have the Dutch to thank for its offensive pronunciation--I think however my Dad's grandmother may have been thoroughly German).

The reason is that, for good or ill, the most generative thinking in all of human history came from Germany these last three centuries.  France gave us their sloppy, head-chopping version of the Enlightenment.  Perhaps some of our more enduring ills as a nation are its shallow version of freedom, a freedom that self-destructed there. The English/British are of course a strong second to the Germans, with their Newton, Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, Bacon, Wesley, and so forth.

But these shining lights cannot compete with the mass of Kant, Goethe, Luther, Leibniz, Schelling, Schopenhaur, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Heidegger, Gadamer, Wittgenstein.  In Bible/theology we have Lessing, Ritschl, Troeltsch, Harnack, Wellhausen, Baur, von Rad, Barth, Bultmann.  Then in music we have Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Strauss, Wagner.  Nuclear physics was born here, with Planck, Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, and many more.  It is hilarious that Hitler in effect bequeathed these geniuses to America because of his prejudice against Jews.  It is sobering to realize that so much of American science was transplanted.

To be sure, these German names raise all kinds of flags.  We do not associate many of these names with good ideas.  But until World War 2 and Hilter's black comedy of self-destruction, Germans were almost always at the forefront of the wave of human thought--leading the next step.  We can learn something from all of these thinkers.  They were not crazies but thinking on a deeper level than most of us could imagine.  Their thinking forces anyone interested in truth to deal with them in one way or another.  You can't dismiss them with a German joke.

Where in my world is anyone thinking on this level?  Sad to say, I'm not sure anyone is.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Looking for a Messiah

Although it's not official, I've got a green light to start work on a couple new books, on Jesus this time (this is not my sabbatical work, but on the side).  The first one I've tentatively called The Essential Jesus, although WPH will of course decide the real title if everything progresses. Chapter 1 will be "The Baptism of John," and the first section "Looking for a Messiah."  So here it begins.
I suspect that many of us think that the Jews of Jesus' day were all waiting for the messiah, perhaps even that they expected the messiah to be God come to earth.  We think this way, no doubt, because we find places in the New Testament where a New Testament author hears the Old Testament fulfilled in the life of Jesus on earth. Our hindsight makes it seem obvious that Jesus was the messiah everyone had been waiting for.

But when we look at the history and what Jews were actually writing in the years prior to Jesus, the situation is more complicated. For example, it is not likely at all that any Jews were expecting God to come earth as a human.  In fact, there is only one Jewish text that can be interpreted to mean that a heavenly figure will come to earth as Israel's anointed king (DSS*).  And that is just one interpretation of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. [1] The texts that expect a coming "messianic" figure, they instead expect a human king to show up.

And we should also make it clear that the word "messiah" in itself simply means, "anointed one."  It does not have to refer to a king.  One of the programmatic documents of the Jewish community by the Dead Sea speaks of the "anointed ones" of Aaron and Israel (1QS)--that is, the "messiahs" of Aaron and Israel.  This community apparently looked for the coming of both a priestly messiah to restore the true purity of the temple and a royal messiah to return a proper king to Israel.

Most experts believe these documents belonged to a Jewish group known as the Essenes.  Many of them, it would seem, expected a messiah to come eventually who would be king of Israel.  This would be a human king--an extraordinary man, no doubt, but a completely human one.  It is not clear that a writing called the Psalms of Solomon is Essene (it could also be Pharisee), but it looks to a military king to come who will destroy the Romans and restore Israel's kingdom (Ps. of Sol. 17).

However, the Essenes (and the Pharisees) were only a tiny portion of all the Jews in the world.  Did the ordinary Jew farming his or her land have such thoughts, the "people of the land"?  Certainly there were discontented groups of men who revolted from time to time.  We call them revolutionaries but they were sporadic at the time of Jesus, not organized or belonging to some coherent group.  They did seem to put forward their leaders as potential king figures--completely human figures.

But the high priests and Sadducees were not looking for a messianic king.  They were pretty much in political control anyway, since the Romans ruled through them and their class.  Most Jews at the time of Christ did not even live in Jerusalem.  At the time, far more Jews lived outside of Jerusalem than inside and around it.  These are "Diaspora" or scattered Jews.  More Jews lived in a part of the city of Alexandria than lived in all of Jerusalem.

It is not clear at all that these Diaspora Jews were looking for a figure to arise to restore the political independence of Israel.  Philo, an educated Jew who lived in Alexandria, has virtually nothing to say about a potential king of this sort.  We find only a couple places in his massive writings that might allude to such a king, and we can argue that he only became marginally interested in such things after the emperor Caligula disgraced Israel by trying to set up a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple.

So, yes, some Jews were hoping that one day God would raise a king up within Israel and that Israel by some means would become free of Roman rule and be independent again.  We can imagine that such fervor rose particularly during times of discontent or transition.  But those Jews who were looking for a messianic king at those times and in those groups were looking for an extraordinary human king who would restore the political independence of Israel.  They were not looking for God to come to earth or for the messiah to be a heavenly being. [2]

[1] The Dead Sea Scrolls were a large collection of scrolls found in some caves at Qumran by the Dead Sea.  They date to the century or so before Christ, and most experts think they belonged to an Essene community that was located there.

[2] And, truth be told, the New Testament authors did not read the Old Testament like a Bible teacher would have you read it today.  They were not wired to try to read the words inductively, using clues from the literary and historical context to figure out the most likely original meaning of the text.  Almost all the passages in which the New Testament authors heard the Spirit speaking about Christ are read in a "spiritual" way.  In other words, most of those passages were not originally predictions about Jesus but "fuller senses" found in the words through the eyes of the Spirit.

First Fulbright paragraph

This morning I wrote the first page of my Fulbright project.  I started with chapter 3 to get my juices going and because I may present it here at the university.  Here's the first paragraph of my project:
In the previous chapter, we argued that it was quite natural for the earliest Christians to draw on sacrificial metaphors to make sense of Christ’s death. Indeed, we argued that it is quite likely that Jesus himself gave them precedence for thinking of his death in this way in the final hours before his arrest, if not before. The most natural way for them to interpret the scope of his death was to see it as an atonement for the Israel of their day, a righteous death to restore sinful Israel. At the same time, it is not clear that anyone in this ragtag group of followers was of the sort to be deeply theological in orientation. More likely, they very generally saw his death in retrospect as catalyzing and effecting all the goals of Jesus during his earthly activities, with their focal point in the land of Israel.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What is sin? 2

I want to shift my blogging energies a little, so may finish this one more intermittently... maybe on Sundays.

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
What is sin? 1
What is sin? 2
Does God tempt? 1
Does God tempt? 2

What is sin continued...
It is also important for us to recognize the standard by which these intentions were measured.  The New Living Translation imposes later theological categories on Romans 3:23 when it translates it to say that all have fallen short of "God's glorious standard," as if the problem is the fact that we cannot be perfect.   More likely, Paul was saying that human lack the glory that God intended them to have in Psalm 8.

There are at least two respects in which the rhetoric many Christians use in relation to sin is out of focus.  First, we have a tendency to put more emphasis on one argument Paul makes than I am convinced he himself did.  This is the "no one can keep every law their entire life; therefore, we are entirely guilty" argument.  True, Paul does say all have sinned in Romans 3 and Galatians 3:19 does seem to make an argument something like this.

But Paul's purpose here is not to give a systematic theological statement.  He is backing up his claim that we all need Christ's atonement--little more.  He certainly is not saying that we are guilty of every law (a mistaken interpretation even of James 2:10).  He is not saying we are totally depraved (that there is no good in us whatsoever). He is simply stating something everyone would have agreed with at the time--all humanity needs atonement.

Those who say they do not are deceiving themselves, are making God a liar (1 John 1:8, 10).  That is what all these statements amount to.  Later theologians like Augustine and Calvin systematized and absolutized passing arguments in Paul.  However, we will inevitably get Paul out of focus if we use such passages as the starting point for understanding God's character in relation to justice.

A second difference to keep in mind is how introspective modern Westerners have become in our individualistic, post-Romantic context. We can self-analyze our motives and intentions in a way that neither Jesus or Paul came close to assuming.  Even the level of Christian perfection John Wesley had in mind went far too introspective for the standards of Jesus' day, causing not only many Wesleyans since but Wesley himself sometimes to torture themselves in an unhealthy inward focus.

The result is a lot of distraction with regard to what is important about the category of sin, which is one's intent to do wrong or to do things contrary to a heart devoted to God.  Sin and evil are most meaningful concepts when we are talking about our intentions toward others and the extent to which we filter our lives through true devotion to God.  Sin as any imperfection, as unintentional wrongdoing--these have a place in a systematic treatment but are not particularly helpful in sorting out how to live a righteous life.

This also leads us to a massive myth that is widely circulated these days--that all sin is sin.  This idea has absolutely no biblical basis at all in terms of the life of a believer.  True, when we first come to Christ, any sin we have in the past amounts to breaking our relationship with God. In that sense we might say that all sin is sin for our pre-Christian past.  But the New Testament nowhere treats all sin after justification as equal.  Not only does Paul dispense different consequences for different sins, but some sins can keep a person from inheriting the kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

The key once again is intention, a fact usually missed by the pop notion that all sin is the same.  As in a relationship with other people, some wrongs can break a relationship while others only damage it a little.  There is a vast difference between forgetting an anniversary and having an affair.  It is this way in our relationship with God.  There is a vast difference between losing our temper with someone because we have not had enough sleep and murdering millions of Christians in the name of atheism.  To suggest these two sins would be the same in God's eyes is patently ludicrous.

By the same token, emotions are not, in themselves, sinful.  As someone once said, "Emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are."  True, you can choose to act in a sinful way because you are angry--"Be angry and do not sin" (Eph. 4:26).  And you can subtly err by setting yourself up for wrongdoing because of your emotions.  You can miss sleep or food.

The level of intention is again the measure of the degree of wrongdoing.  If you know certain courses of action make you more susceptible to do wrong and you do not change, then your intention is involved.  And if your intention is involved, then we get into the realm of morality and evil.

This discussion relates to the question of evil and suffering because it gets in front of us exactly what we are asking.  The questions of evil and pain are questions about God's intentions, not questions of how bad these things feel or how horrendous an effect they have.  When we consider evil and sin in terms of the consequence, measured against an absolute standard of perfection, we are not asking the right question.  These are questions of God's intentions.  Suffering and pain in themselves, the effect of moral evil, are not evil.  They are just rather unpleasant.

Next Sunday: Why does God allow evil?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Gospel Today

I'm trying to finish up today a piece for Catalyst, a Methodist journal for pastors, on the gospel.  I've been delighted to write two dictionary articles on "gospel" for the Global Wesleyan Dictionary and the InterVarsity revised version of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.  So I've written the first half of the article, which gives my sense of how the content of the word "gospel" might have developed from John the Baptist to the second century.  Now comes the most important part for pastors--how do we appropriate this rich history?

I don't think I should write out the whole second half here, but I thought I would use the blog to help me organize my thoughts.  It seems to me that there are at least four key appropriations:

1. Gospel as the good news of God's kingship
The cornerstone of the good news for John the Baptist and for Jesus was ultimately the good news that "our God reigns."  God is in control of things.  Despite how things may look, God wins.

2. Gospel as the good news of Christ's kingship
But Jesus the anointed one stands at the heart of God's reign.  God the Father reigns on earth through Jesus, whom he has enthroned as cosmic king of the universe.  This is good news because Christ is the Savior of the world who brings peace to conflict and the blessings that are usually associated with the good news in the New Testament.  This is good news because it means the defeat of the forces of evil in this world, which are ultimately subject to his authority.  This is good news because it means life from the dead, both ultimately and in our mortal bodies.

3. Gospel as good news for the poor and dis-empowered
In Luke especially, the gospel is a social gospel--it means sight for the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and good news for the poor.  It means that Christ's servants are not only interested in empowering the individuals who are weak, but in changing the structures of society as we are able into good news for all.

4. Gospel as the redemption/reconciliation of the world
The good news means the redemption and reconciliation of the world.  We see this first in the gospel as the reconciliation of Israel in the ministry of John the Baptist to Paul's good news for Gentiles.  It is the entire story of redemption culminating in a coming day when God will set everything right.

Martin Luther vs. Communism

I tried to think of an interesting title to go with our side trips on the way home from Berlin to Wittenberg and Leipzig yesterday.  Wittenberg is the city where Luther taught and in 1537 nailed 95 arguments on the door of the cathedral, setting into motion what would become the birth of Protestantism.

As is often the case, he could not have imagined the effect that invitation to debate would have on history. When my children asked, "What's Protestantism?" I scarcely knew what to say.  It's a massive amount of reality right now.  It's all the churches everywhere in Marion except for one.  It's a massive amount of history.

Another piece of history is in Wittenberg too.  That's the fact that from 1945 to 1990 this town was in East Germany.  From 1961 to 1989 this place was divided from the rest of the world by a fence. You pass buildings that look like no one has done anything with them since WW2.  You pass a massive chemical plant.

We only drove partially into Leipzig.  I wanted to see this formerly east German city where Heisenburg (physics, early 1900s) and Lessing (theology and literature, 1700s) taught.  This is the city where Goethe (1700s, poet, writer), and philosophers Leibniz (1700s) and Nietzsche (1800s) studied.  A lot of it now looks like driving down mid-city Adams street in Marion, with abandoned factories.

What does it do to a person to grow up under that kind of communism.  You can take the person out of the wall, but can you truly take the wall out of the person?  And even if your children grow up without the wall, it will affect the way you raise them, your attitudes toward how to behave.

My guess would be that most east Germans are probably not bubbling over with friendliness and a drive to help you when you are in need.  One lady in Wittenberg was perfectly helpful with directions when asked.  Another at their version of Sams Club in Leipzig was not.

I thought of the legalism that pervaded the Wesleyan Church in the mid-1900s.  Even after we stopped dressing like that, it arguably has an effect.  Maybe you put that legalism into how you dress as a professional now or maybe you go anti-legalism and become a rebel.  Maybe you just transfer your legalism to the next issue--so now you're legalistic about drinking or apply it to a rigid sense of justice in your politics or in your grading.

I wondered whether I would find more leniency with the speed limit in east Germany or west?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Berlin: A Torturous History

Quick trip to Berlin in a roundabout trip home from orientation.  What a torturous history this city has had! I can't think of any other city with quite so dramatic a past in the last 100 years.

This building from which Hitler ruled was practically a vacant lot when I first visited in 1995, not long after the wall came down.  This was the place where the Soviet soldier famously planted the Russian flag in 1945.


Church of Remembrance

These remains of the original Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche are currently hidden under restoration, but they are a reminder of the relentless bombing we did of Germany until Hitler was finally defeated.  I asked a friend yesterday where the bunker was where he committed suicide and I guess it is kept a secret so that no one will make it into a shrine.  What a complete loser Hitler was, this man that ran the German people--not even really his people since he was Austrian--into the ground.

Berlin Wall
As if getting bombed to bits wasn't enough punishment for the citizens of Berlin, they were then divided into east and west by the Russians until finally the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. There's a line in the road now that runs in front of the Brandenburg Gate where the wall and the beginning of No Man's Land used to be.  The wall came down of course in 1989.

One of the most bustling places in town now is the Alexanderplatz in what was formerly East Berlin.  I saw that they are now line jumping from the top of the Park City Hotel where we stayed last time for several days in 2004.  The Eastern part of the city is now far more integrated into the city than when I first visited in 1995.  Unification was in 1990.

So ruled by Hitler, bombed to bits by the Allies, divided by the Russians, unified again in 1990.  I don't think even Jerusalem can claim such a torturous history these last seventy years.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

State of the German Nation...

I spent a day of orientation here in Göttingen.  The afternoon was about what's going on right now in German politics and such.  Very interesting.  The Fulbrighters here are not a uniform group and so there were various fairly obvious hints at different political positions in the room.  I continue to consider myself a centrist, although if I were a German I suspect they would consider me somewhat right of center.

You might find the rundown interesting.  Here they have 20% sales tax.  43% of the Gross Domestic Product is in the state sector, which I think means that almost half of the jobs (in terms of money) are state related (of course university professors are usually employees of the state here--and students go to university for free).  The large taxes thus come back in free education and free health care.  Parents of unmarried children under 25 also get 6000 Euros per child back from their taxes.  The population is declining, so this is also partly meant to motivate having children.

The leader of the session this morning mentioned that most Germans do not want less taxes as long as Germany has such high debt. They also feel a sense of corporate responsibility that everyone have health care, although they also recognize the importance of motivating individuals to work rather than live off the system (the leader suggested there are perhaps a million people in Germany who are content simply to live off the social safety net).

A great number of changes have gone into effect in recent years.  They are tending to abolish the old system that sent budding auto mechanics to loser school.  They have broken their college system down into something the rest of the world can understand (with bachelor's and master's degrees).  They are ramping up how much work university students are expected to do (it used to be very leisurely indeed, taking up to 7 or 8 years).  Younger age schools are increasingly going to a full day as opposed to the old half day and come home at 1 to mama.

Obama enjoys a 75% approval rating in Europe in general in terms of his foreign policy (80 something percent in Germany).  While many Germans don't want to bail out Greece (much as many Americans opposed the TARP bailouts), the leader of the presentation thought it was inevitable that the EU would navigate a way through the crisis, for the sake of an EU that eventually was something like the United States of Europe. His hunch was that much of the debt in places like Greece, Italy, and Spain would be forgiven in return from some budgetary control and restructuring of their economic system.

I was not aware that I was coming at such an interesting time of change in Germany.  Just this past summer, Germany did away with compulsory military service.  Just this past summer, Germany switched from 9 year higher school (13 grades) to 8 years (12 grades like ours).

There are of course all the usual German funnities.  They are massively into recycling (e.g., paper, organic, the rest) and we have three trash cans to separate things.  But the truth is, the city people have sophisticated machines that separate it anyway.  All the stuff from the houses is poured together in the truck. ;-)  It's just a cultural reminder (and profit to the people who sell the different cans) to have individual households continue to separate.

Pets are taxed, but are allowed in restaurants.  There was a court ruling that stated that noise was a natural phenomenon from children.  It is thus against the law to complain too much about how loud children are.  Interesting comments on how views on balanced budgets and debt levels relate to growing economies.  It was mentioned that Japanese debt is 200% of GDP... and that the Yen continues to grow in value. ;-)

It would be nice if people in countries like the US could go abroad to places like England and Germany for a bit.  Germans who resent America usually soften when they come to the States and see what it's really like.  By the same token, I suspect a lot of popular feeling in America on a host of issues would soften if we just got out a little bit more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Today we drove a rented car from Munich to Göttingen.  I haven't driven a stick in 6 years so that was fun, but you can't hardly go wrong with these new ones.  Göttingen is where the Brothers Grimm taught, so the stories of Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty all come from this part of Germany.

For you history buffs, I learned some interesting things about Göttingen on a walking tour.  First, I had long forgotten that the kings of the house of Hanover in England (George I, George II, the notorious George III who lost the colonies... to the present Queen Elizabeth) were also kings of this region of Hannover here.  It was only because this region refused to have a woman, Queen Victoria, as their ruler when a male was available, that the relationship was severed in 1837 when she ascended to the throne of England.

The Grimm Brothers were two of a famous "Göttingen 7" who were removed from their professorships in that year when the new king cancelled a recent Constitution that had moved Hannover in a "liberal" direction by moving a good deal of power from the king to the Parliament.  Ernst August 1 took the power back and dissolved that Parliament.  Those 7 feisty professors who objected were dismissed, including the Grimm Brothers.

Göttingen and other university towns like Tübingen and Heidelberg were spared bombing in World War 2, so there are some buildings and houses here that go back to the 1200s.  There is little industry here but it is clearly a university town.

A number of famous professors have taught at Göttingen over the years:

  • J. D. Michaelis (1770s): pioneer in the study of Semitic languages
  • Ben Franklin--not a professor here, but visited here and had strong relations with Lichtenberg, who urged the university here to introduce experiments into their teaching of physics ;-)
  • Albrecht Ritschl (1800s): primary figure in Liberal theology that reduced Jesus to his love ethic, wrote a completely "mirror reading" book on the historical Jesus (Albert Schweitzer massively undermined it)
  • Julius Wellhausen (1800s): systematizer of JEDP as a theory for how the Pentateuch came together (no one would now accept his specifics, although sources behind the Pentateuch is the overwhelming consensus)
  • Walter Bauer (1800s): did important work on second century Christianity and how the word "orthodoxy" is inappropriate for this period (still consensus)
  • Karl Barth: professor here in the 1920s (the most significant theologian of the twentieth century, anywhere)
  • Gerhard von Rad: famous post war OT scholar (one of the most important OT scholars of twentieth century, wrote a two volume OT theology)
  • Ernst Käsemann: famous post war NT scholar (studied under Bultmann, started the second quest for the historical Jesus)
  • Hans Conzelmann: famous NT scholar 
  • Gunther Bornkamm: famous NT scholar
  • Joachim Jeremias: famous Jesus scholar who wrote Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus 


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is sin? 1

I decided that the "Clean and Unclean" post was interesting, but probably distracting from a booklet.  I'll try to combine several things into one post called, "What is Sin?"  Below is where I'm thinking it would go, although I think this will take two posts.

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
What is sin?
Does God tempt? 1
Does God tempt? 2

Perhaps the most popular definition of sin amounts to anything short of perfection.  We say it is to "miss the mark" and the mark in question is often defined as any mistake or imperfection whatsoever.  The picture of God behind this definition is a God of justice who must and wants to punish the slightest infraction.  If we say we have no sin, 1 John 1:8 is quickly produced, we are deceiving ourselves.

There are immense problems with the preceding paragraph--and there would be troublesome implications for the problem of evil and suffering.  For one, while we do find the category of unintentional sin in Scripture, it certainly receives little attention in the New Testament.  To define sin as missing the mark is usually based on an atrocious word fallacy.  This is arguably a misinterpretation of 1 John 1:8 and the father who represents God in the Parable Son knows nothing of this understanding of God's attitudes.

Sin in its most meaningful sense involves intention.  We are defining evil as active intent against loving God or one's neighbor and the actions that follow.  So sin in its most meaningful sense is active intent or action that violates love of God or neighbor.  The two prove to be very closely related.  An evil intent is a sinful intent, and evil done is a sin done.

What then of unintentional sin?  To sin is to wrong another person or to do wrong defined as action or intent against God or one's neighbor.  You can of course wrong another person accidentally.  And you can do wrong out of ignorance.  We can certainly find places in the Bible where these things are called sin.

However, these categories apply much more to the Old Testament than the New.  It is the Levitical parts of the Old Testament that have the categories of clean and unclean.  One can become stained simply by touching the wrong thing.  In Numbers 15:22-31, clear instructions are given for a person who sins unintentionally, but there is no hope for the person who might sin defiantly and intentionally.  We know from the stories of the Old Testament that God often did forgive such individuals.  Our point here is that the function of sacrifice in Leviticus has to do with unintentional wrongs done and thus that the Bible does have a category relating to unintentional sins or wrongs done in ignorance.

But this is not the dominant category of the New Testament.  In fact, this category is only discussed in the past tense.  The Day of Atonement used to be about sins committed in ignorance (Heb. 9:7).  From Adam to Moses people died because of their wrongs done, even though those sins were not technically charged to their account (Rom. 5:14).  What is important for the New Testament is intentional wrong: "If someone knows the good to do and does not do it, it is sin" (Jas. 4:17).  In perhaps the most helpful statement about sin in the New Testament, Paul says that "Everything that is not from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).

This last statement is an excellent picture of what we are saying about sin and evil.  It has to do with one's attitude and intention.  Sin has do with why you do what you do and with what your intentions are toward God and others.  This sense of God's interests does not only come in the New Testament.  We find this same sense from 2 Samuel 16:7 where God tells Samuel not to focus on how the sons of Jesse look--God looks on the heart.  In Mark 7:15, Jesus similarly was not worried about what made a person clean or unclean externally, but about what was in their hearts.

It is also important for us to recognize the standard by which these intentions were measured.  The New Living Translation imposes later theological discussion on Romans 3:23 when it translated it to say that all have fallen short of "God's glorious standard," as if the problem is the fact that we cannot be perfect...

Monday, September 19, 2011


After the better part of a tortuous week without internet, it seems like we have found our way.  We'll see.

Many thanks to God for a safe and effective landing.  We're in our flat, have figured out how to get around and which subway and trolley lines to use, were there for the start of Oktoberfest, have registered with the government, bought our shopping bags, and now have internet.

Now if we could just figure out why our Verizon phones don't get any signal ;-)

More to come...

Friday, September 16, 2011

German, Chinese, and Word Fallacies

Six minutes and my time in this typical overseas internet cafe is up.

It occured to me that speakers in certain languages are more prone to certain word fallacies than others.  For example, words in German often do combine parts together in ways that Germans consider meaningful.  Similarly, the pictures in Chinese and other languages do suggest pictures behind meanings.

From the standpoint of meaning, however, these tendencies to the etymological and overload fallacies are onlz because the speakers of those languages use words in those ways.  The words do not have to have those sorts of connections.  Thus Wittgenstein and the pragmatist understanding of language continue to hold valid--meaning is constructed up.  These are special cases where the use of words in certain languages tends to use etymologies and such as meaningful.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Clean and Unclean 5

I'm going to cheat and insert an old post here.  I actually wrote it back when I started dabbling with the idea of a book or booklet on suffering.  Here's where I now think it might go.

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
Clean and Unclean (here is where this post goes)
What is sin?
Does God tempt? 1
Does God tempt? 2

The unclean foods and purity laws of Leviticus might seem at first glance seem to contradict the idea that morality is always a matter of someone's intentions (Lev. 11-16).  After all, in Leviticus simply touching something makes you unclean.  There are other instances where a person's intentions seem to be good and their touch gets them in trouble.  In 2 Samuel 6, a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and died immediately.  Similarly, at Mt. Sinai, any animal that might have touched the mountain was to be killed (Exod. 19:13).

But as with all issues, we cannot simply appropriate one passage without consulting the rest of the Bible.  Similarly, the books of the Bible are in everyday language and categories, which means that it does not express things with philosophical precision, just as it does not express things with scientific or what we would consider historical precision.  When we turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul saying that "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14).

Paul's claim--quite surprising in the light of Leviticus--is that food in itself is morally neutral.  It is the way a person thinks about the food--his or her moral intent--that makes the food clean or unclean.  The matter itself is morally neutral.  We can accommodate the Old Testament by saying that, during the period of the Old Testament, God considered certain foods and actions to be "unclean" in his dealings with Israel.  But in the New Testament, God "declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19), now making them clean.

Why did God consider them unclean?  In itself this question potentially tells us a great deal about how God relates to the world.  The instructions on animals with certain hooves or not having fins and scales seem ridiculous to us today.  One explanation that has made sense to our modern mind is that these rules had to do with hygiene, and this explanation does go back at least to the time of Jesus.

However, explanations that make sense to us are as often as not anachronistic.  A much more likely explanation in light of the ancient world is that these laws mirrored the way the ancient Israelites viewed the world in their socio-cultural context. [1]  In other words, rather than God instituting arbitrary rules, these laws reflected God meeting the Israelites within the categories of their own day.

The food laws all imply a certain order to the Israelite world.  Things in the sea should have fins and scales.  Birds should fly.  Blood is a power that should stay inside the body.  Israelites are shepherds; other nations herd pigs.  The holiness codes of Leviticus thus reflect the lines Israel drew around their world, just as all cultures draw lines and boundaries around their worlds. [2]  These laws thus set Israel apart from the nations around them that served other gods.  When the gospel expanded to the whole world, these boundaries became more of a hindrance than a help, and so the New Testament in effect revokes them.

But of course, though Paul takes this position on food, he does not say that everything is either clean or unclean because of how we think about it.  For example, it is doubtful Paul would have talked about sexual immorality in this way.  But again, Paul's writings are letters, not philosophy books.  We can still extend the basic principle and account for what he says about sexual immorality in a more precise way.

The key is to bring God into the picture as we did with Leviticus.  There, it was not the food that was moral in  nature, but the fact that God at that time was declaring those foods unclean for Israel, meeting them within their categories, taking on their flesh, so to speak--incarnating the truth.  It is thus possible that certain sexual actions would remain "unclean" in the New Testament era because God considered them unclean, regardless of the intentions of those involved (e.g., sleeping with your step-mother; 1 Cor. 5).

But we are arguing, once again, that it is not the act itself or things themselves that are unclean or morally wrong.  Rather, it is either what God thinks about those acts and events or what we intend about those acts that makes them either morally good or evil.  And here the principle is once again love.  Can a person ever act in love toward his or her spouse and have an affair?  Highly doubtful.  Therefore, cheating on one's spouse is always a morally evil act--not because of the act itself, but because of the intention involved.

[1] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.

[2] See The Social Construction of Reality.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Does God tempt? 6

Previous posts in this series:

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
Does God tempt? 1

And now to continue:

... So what center point are we to choose?  The question it seems is the following.  Is God more or less directly responsible for moral evil?  Or is he more indirectly the cause?

On the one hand, since the third century or so, it has become a near universal Christian belief that God was the entire creator of everything in the universe.  In the 100s, Gnostic Christians attributed evil to the material world, something God did not create.  It was arguably in the context of this debate that most Christians came to believe that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo as they say.

But if God created the world and everything that exists in this universe out of nothing, then God must have also created moral evil--or at least the possibility of moral evil.  Here is where many Christians today part ways.  One side sees God more or less directing everything that happens in the world, including moral evil.  They may see God causing Satan to cause moral evil, but everything Satan does, he does under orders.  This what we might call the hyper-Calvinist option. [1]

The other side, the one for which I am arguing, gives God sovereignty (or absolute control) over the creation, like the other side.  But it distances God from directly causing moral evil.  Rather, in creation God created the possibility for moral creatures like Satan and humanity to sin and do evil.  He gave humanity the power to do evil or not to do evil.  But he does not actually do anything evil.

Notice the way I worded this.  God does not do anything evil.  According to our definition in the previous section, we mean to say that God never at any point has an evil intent.  By wording it in this way, we are not necessarily saying that God could never tempt or that God could not cause someone to act evilly, although these are hard things to imagine.  We are saying that anything God does, he does righteously.  He does nothing with an evil intent.

So if God were ever to cause pain or suffering--indeed, if we could ever imagine God causing someone to do evil--he would never do so with evil intent.  The Christian center points are surely the twin points of love and justice within God.  God never does anything that is unloving. Justice is not unloving.  Justice is when God does not show mercy and allows/administers the consequences of one's own choices.

In general, our approach is to say that God primarily allows evil and pain in the world rather than more or less orchestrating it.  The evil that happens in the world happens because of God's permissive will rather than his directive will.  I am unsure whether we can completely eliminate the possibility that God might at some point direct someone to do evil.  What we can say is that he would only do so with an intent for good.

We also prefer to see God's justice much more as his allowing the consequences of one's choices to play out.  This is the picture we get in Romans 1, where God "abandons" humanity to spiral into the consequences of its own sinful actions.  Whatever hell might be, the most coherent understanding is that it is not so much a place where God sends people as the playing out of the consequences of one's evil intentions, with God simply not intervening to stop the process.

So does God tempt us?  James 1 is basically saying that we are ultimately to blame for our own evil actions.  If we have to answer yes or no, the best answer is surely no.  But James is not writing philosophy.  It is wisdom literature, which is proverbial in nature.  Although it is hard to imagine, we probably cannot say that God would never tempt under any circumstances whatsoever.  We can say he himself would never do so with evil intent.

Therefore, in the light of the totality of Scripture and a more precise sense of God's nature, we should see the Old Testament passages about God directly tempting and causing people to do evil things as very imprecise presentations that we can refine.  Rather than God sending an evil spirit that caused Saul to try to kill David, we can say more accurately that God allowed the various powers both spiritual and individual to do these things.  God far more allows moral evil in the world rather than directing it.  And indeed, perhaps he never ever directs it.

[1] I say hyper-Calvinist option because Calvin himself seems to have believed that it was possible that Adam might not have sinned, but since he did, humans are evil.  This view would not make God the direct cause of evil because he would have given Adam a choice.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sponge Bob Study

I am an avid Sponge Bob fan, although I don't get to watch it as much as when my kids were younger and I wasn't a Dean.  And I don't doubt that a kid would have a hard time focusing after watching Sponge Bob.  Sponge Bob is like eating chocolate or drinking a Coke, except in relation to the brain rather than the blood stream.

Here's my question.  If you had those same students do some task that involved creativity or ingenuity right after watching, would they do better than that kid using crayons?  And how do those same 4 years turn out in later life?  Will they prove to be faster thinkers or better innovators in the end because their cortex was more stimulated as a child?

Obviously I'm not competent to say and there are no studies of this sort yet.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  Sponge Bob and his equivalents are here to stay.

P.S. I hope no colorers were offended by this post.

Does God tempt? 5

Now returning to my idea of a booklet on Why God Allows Evil and Suffering?

Here are the previous posts:
Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil

And now the latest in the series:
Does God tempt?
On the one hand, the answer to this question seems obvious enough.  James 1:13 says, "No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one" (NRSV).  But we find other comments in Scripture that complicate matters.

For example, in Romans 9:17-18, God is said to harden Pharaoh and whomever he chooses in a way that leads them to do things which God then condemns.  The person who has done evil, when judged by God, asks God why he is finding fault with them when he has made them to do the evil (9:20).  Some Christians take this passage to mean that God more or less directly causes evil.

In Genesis 22, we find Abraham commanding Isaac to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Christian philosophers debate whether murder is a good thing when God commands it.  And of course God does not let Abraham go through with it.  But given the full revelation of Scripture, God seems to be tempting Abraham to do something that is solidly wrong.

2 Samuel 24:1 actually speaks of God tempting David to do something wrong, something God will later judge David for doing.  He incites David to disobey him and take a census.  This action by God reminds us of the evil spirits that God is said to send on Saul in 2 Samuel 16:14-15.  In more than one place, Saul tries to kill David when this evil spirit from God comes on him (2 Sam. 18:10; 19:9).

To make matters even more complicated, 1 and 2 Chronicles are basically a revised edition of Samuel and Kings from a post-exile perspective.  One of the key ingredients of Jewish theology that has come into play in the meantime is an understanding of someone that works for God in the "testing" department.  This individual, "the adversary" or "the satan," goes around seeing if people will remain loyal to God.

So in 1 Chronicles 21:1's version of 2 Samuel 24, it is no longer God who tempts David to number the children of Israel.  It is now the satan who does so.  Similarly, in Job, it is not God who directly causes the calamity on Job or who tempts Job but rather, it is the satan.  Arguably none of the earlier Old Testament texts have any conception of the satan (Genesis through Kings, the pre-exilic and exilic prophets).  For this reason, they ascribe to God's direct action things like sending evil spirits on Saul.  The later texts would have said it was the satan.

Even here, the satan of the Old Testament is not yet Satan the fallen angel in the New Testament.  This development in understanding seems to take place in the rise of apocalyptic Judaism around 200BC in documents like 1 Enoch.  The New Testament actually says very little about Satan's origins or who he is.  The general understanding we as Christians have of him as a fallen angel and the one who tempted Adam in the Garden does not actually come from the Bible but from Jewish literature at the time. [1]  This fact does not in any way mean that our Christian understanding is wrong, only that it is late and largely comes from outside the Bible.

Two initial conclusions flow from this discussion.  The first is that we must read individual Scriptures about God and temptation in the light of the whole flow of revelation.  We cannot simply take one verse and assume it gives us the whole story.  We will have to do some heavy theological lifting to conceptualize a biblical theology here.

The second is that while we can draw the elements of our biblical theology of God and temptation from these individual texts, we will need some controlling sense of God in general order to connect them to each other.  We have to choose a "center point" in Scripture to which we can map the other passages and perspectives.  Which center point we choose will depend on our overall sense of God's character.  Unfortunately, these sorts of decisions have to be made from outside the Bible looking in because the individual texts themselves present differing perspectives [2]...

the rest of this section tomorrow...

[1] For example, Genesis 3 does not identify the serpent with Satan because Israel had no conception of the satan at the time Genesis was written.  It is not until the first century before Christ that a writing called The Life of Adam and Eve first identifies the serpent as Satan.  Isaiah 14 in context was not originally about Satan but about the king of Babylon.  And Satan falling from the sky in Luke 10:18 in context has to do with the exorcism ministry of the disciples, not something that happened around the birth of the world.

[2] Part of the reason we argue past each other as Christians is because we do not realize this dynamic.  We throw verses that support our positions at each other without realizing that the tie breakers have to be made outside the text in a theological context.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Ten Years (Part 2)

In memory of 9-11, I started a look back at the last 10 years yesterday.  I didn't feel like yesterdays run from 2000-2007 would cause that much of a stir.  We've had a little time to cool down.  When I was blogging through these things at the time I got some pretty strong reactions.

Today's post I suspect will be much more sensitive, not because it deals with more momentous topics.  What could be more momentous than 9-11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  It is because we are still living through it and emotions are still charged.  I don't know if I'll write a 15 or 20 year look back, but today's post will not be particularly controversial in 5 years, because our emotions will have moved on.  This is a great lesson to learn in the midst of political heat.

So I present my sense of the last 5 years or so.  And so that you can read my feelings, I am trying not to write them in with emotion, but in an attempt to be as objective as possible (knowing that no one can be completely objective).

In 2008, America entered into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Bush was still in office. When voting today we will have a tendency to blame Obama since he is the one in office right now, but he cannot be blamed for causing the current economic crisis, although you might accuse him of worsening it or not helping the recovery enough. 

Which of these you think is correct will depend on your sense of whether his stimulus package helped, hurt, or didn't do anything.  Certainly the stimulus package added a significant amount to our national debt, so those who view our current state through this lens see Obama as worsening the crisis.  Others say it didn't help or didn't help much.

These are more matters for the experts than for people like you and me.  There is no question that the economy has improved significantly from what it was in 2008, although the recent debt ceiling crisis and downgrade of the US credit rating has left us with a bit of a roller coaster these last weeks. And of course President Bush passed a couple stimulus packages like this, so to distinguish themselves from Obama on this issue, the Republican party has had to move to the right and oppose a position it once had.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Pretty much everyone agrees that the "Great Recession" that came on in 2008 was a result of the collapse of the housing bubble.  People had been saying it was coming for years.  Although it happened on Bush's watch, and although I'm not willing to completely absolve his administration of blame, something much bigger than his presidency stands behind this crisis.

Materialism.  I was tempted to say "greed," but I do not mean to use a word that might allow us ordinary people to absolve ourselves too easily.  Depending on your political flavor, you will tend to blame one end or the other.  One side wants to blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--and thus blame poor people who wanted to live in a house but couldn't afford one.  The other side wants to blame greedy traders and hedge fund brokers who bet against the market and, most significantly, bundled up massive amounts of debt and then played with them like they were a volley ball.

One side would say our problem was that we were not living within our means.  I believe this is indeed true.    Those who are militant capitalists tend to say only this.  But it was also, in my opinion, a good example of what happens when capitalism is left uncontrolled.  We did not and still do not have a good sense of the kinds of regulations we need in this electronic age to help capitalism do what it is supposed to do without causing these sorts of crises.  I vigorously disagree with that economic philosophy (libertarian, Ron Paul) that says the problem is that we have regulations at all.  History, in my opinion, begs to differ.

I think it is significant that it was a Republican President who triggered all the TARP bailouts.  To me, this--along of course with the majority of economists--demonstrates their necessity.  "Too big to fail" was something the Bush administration understood as reality.  In the end, the bailouts did not end up causing as much debt as initially thought.  GM and Chrysler paid their loans back.  Some of the banks paid back significant amounts.

The consequence, very interesting to watch, is that in order to oppose the bail-outs, Republicans have had to move to the economic right of President Bush.  The result is a quite dramatic shift in the Republican party these last three years toward libertarianism, which historically of course is a quite different political party.

Obama's first year in office involved continued work to pull our economy out of its nose dive.  Obama, with the Democrats having taken both houses in reaction to the Iraq War and economic crisis, passed a stimulus package in February to try to bolster the economy.  We will have to let the economists debate whether this is the correct approach.  Major economists like Martin Feldstein and Paul Krugman urged it.  It was not some Democratic desire to spend, spend, spend.  It was pushed by a dominant economic perspective--one that President Bush and the Republican party of the first decade of the 2000s accepted.

Ironically, the death of Ted Kennedy kept a Democratically controlled House and Senate from passing the kind of health care bill they had been trying for 50 years to pass.  But they were able to pass a modified health care plan that involved the free market.  Individuals would be required to buy health care and the resulting system would make it possible for most Americans to be covered.

The Democrats were not able to get a "public option" in which the government would provide health care to everyone.  The compromise was a mandate for all Americans to buy health care, much as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts.  The result is that Republicans have had to move further to the right in order to oppose "Obamacare," as it is derisively called.  What used to be libertarian values have gained dominance in the Republican party.

Many have done so by a "strict constructionist" reading of the commerce clause of the Constitution after many, many decades of a broader interpretation.  The clause has been used for 70 years to allow for things such as this mandate in the health care plan.  But idealists in the Republican party are now--somewhat ironically--finding in the current economic crisis reasons to try to turn the American economic system back to the time before the New Deal, which was brought on by the Great Depression.

2009 also saw the rise of the power of the "Tea Party," a group of libertarians who resonate strongly with the revolutionary actions of various colonists in New England against English taxation in the lead up to the Revolutionary War.  The group strongly opposes government "intrusion" into local life, as well as taxation--particularly taxation at a different rate for larger incomes than for lower ones.

The Republican party recognized the power of this group as Republican candidates with this flavor were elected in troves, while traditional Republicans were voted out.  The result was that the Republicans retook the House of Representatives with a vengeance, and not with traditional Republicans, but Tea Party Republicans.

American anger against Obama's health care overhaul was perhaps the major presenting reason for the massive vote of Democrats out of the House.  But it was probably also the perception that the Democratically controlled Congress used political manipulation to get it through, despite strong objections from a very vocal part of the populace. Now, a strongly controlled Republican House came into office with common goals--to reduce the size and power of the federal government and to lower the overwhelming amount of American debt.

The result was a loggerheads over budget and the ensuing crisis over raising the debt ceiling.  While the Tea Party did not get as much as it wanted, the resulting deals tipped very heavily toward their boundaries rather than those of President Obama, who himself was strongly criticized by his own party for giving away the kitchen sink.  Traditional Republicans like John Boehner found themselves unable to broker deals that prior Republicans would have considered quite pleasing.

The inability of Congress to get things done was viewed very negatively by the American people.  Congress' approval rating dipped to the lowest in its history and Obama's also dipped to his lowest ever. Standard and Poor for the first time in history downgraded America's credit rating, partially because the debt was not lowered more, partially because of the inability of Congress and the President to get necessary things done.

As I write today on September 11, 2011, we enter into an election season in which Obama faces a difficult road to re-election, and all the leading Republican candidates are courting Tea Party values.  Rick Perry, if elected, seems to want to return America back to some of its pre-Great Depression economic structures.  But if this look at the last 10 years says anything, it says that a very, very lot can change in a year's time.

We'll see what happens...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Last Ten Years (Part 1)

With tomorrow being the ten year anniversary of September 11, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on the last 10 years or so.  I know these are sensitive and heavily debated issues, but I offer you my historical perspective.

November 2000
First, some background.  I couldn't decide who to vote for in 2000.  Even walking into the voting booth (then at Center School), I contemplated writing my wife in as a write-in.  I had the thought, "The country is pretty much running itself.  It doesn't really matter who the President is."  My Republican upbringing kicked in.  I voted for Bush.

September 11, 2001
9-11 changed everything.  No longer did I listen to morning comedy in the car.  Now I listened to NPR for any news I could get my hands on.  The climate of the news changed from hearing almost nothing international to a regular stream of news about places I couldn't then find on a map, like Afghanistan.

I've almost forgotten the climate of fear that immediately followed here in the States.  It's funny now but I felt the paranoia that led the then mayor of Marion to put concrete barriers around our court house.  I flew to Greece right before we invaded Iraq and was immensely paranoid on the plane.

It's hard to remember how we thought before.  I would never have believed someone could attack us here in that way before.  I really thought they were joking that morning when I heard about it.  No one ever worried about a plane getting hijacked back then.  Everyone wants to blame people after the fact.  We can't remember how we thought before.

We had the sympathy of the world.  There was broad international support for our invasion of Afghanistan and removal of the Taliban.  This was a great opportunity for us in the world, I thought.  So far so good.  

But then the Bush administration began to divert our attention to Iraq.  It has emerged after the fact that Powell and Cheney likely stood on opposite sides of this issue.  Most would say that history has vindicated Powell. The series of events that followed has taken a man I once hoped would be president and almost removed him from the public sphere altogether.

It would have been political suicide for anyone but those from the most liberal of districts to vote against authorizing President Bush to take action in Iraq.  It is a reminder in times like these where American emotions are on a similar high.  We're probably not thinking straight.  I have never been a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I didn't hold it against her that she voted in favor of authorizing Bush.  It would have been political suicide not to.

I do not believe Ahmadinejad would have come to power in Iran if we had not invaded Iraq.  The people elected him in reaction to our impingement in the region.  I believe the horrible situation in Iran is thus one of many unforeseen consequences of the Iraq war.

We invaded Iraq.  I remember thinking as Powell presented evidence of WMD to the UN Council that I sure hoped they had more evidence than he was sharing.  Funny not to present your best stuff, though.

I truly believe that Bush had very good intentions in invading Iraq.  Remember that there was a strong avoidance of the word "invasion."  People fought over a word that everyone now uses without thinking.

Almost everyone recognizes now that there was no connection between Al-Qaeda and Hussein.  Yes, Hussein was a very bad man.  Yes, most people were sure he had WMD at the time.  But the war in Iraq is a textbook case against pre-emptive war in virtually every situation.

I believe that what was behind our attack on Hussein was a well-intentioned uber-strategy for the Middle East.  With the Arab spring, it is possible that it is actually working, although ironically not at all like the think tanks of the time thought it would.  It doesn't justify invading a country out of the blue morally, but it is possible that our mistake will, in the end, lead roughly to its uber-objective: a region that is more friendly to us and somewhat democratized.

At the same time, I truly believe that Bush would not have invaded Iraq if he had known that mission was not going to be accomplished as quickly as he thought it was on that air craft carrier.  I pictured him making that decision with a heavy heart and only because he thought that it would not cause many American (or Iraqi) lives.  Unfortunately, he was massively, massively wrong.

My hunch is that he was culturally naive on a grand scale.  He thought that everyone wants democracy.  Only someone who doesn't know much about other cultures would think that.

I was in Germany the Spring of 2004.  I remember a concerned German at church saying something to me about us going into Iraq and I responded that I didn't think Bush had known what he was doing. I do believe that Bush was a lot wiser in his second term and that Cheney had less influence.  It must be nice to be a second term president who doesn't have to worry about re-election.

It seemed impossible that Bush would not be re-elected in 2004.  People like me were taking a lot of flack at that time for saying things everyone was saying by the 2008 election.  9-11 put us in a massive defensive and protectionist mode.  In my opinion, we still cannot quite think straight.  The anger and fear of that event have gone down, but have yet to return to normal levels.  And the economic crisis has in its own way refueled that same mode of thinking.

The rest of the story, as I see it, tomorrow...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Pain is Not Evil 4

The first three posts of this possible booklet:

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?

Pain is not Evil
One of the central claims we are making here is that, by definition, evil is always a matter of motive and intention.  A tornado that kills hundreds of people is not evil.  It was simply following the laws of nature.  On the other hand, if I know a tornado is headed toward my neighbor’s house and I intentionally decide not to tell her, perhaps hoping she will be killed, that is evil.

The question of God’s intention is also a question about evil.  We believe God knew the tornado was going to happen and kill hundreds of people.  We believe God could have stopped the tornado.  So why didn’t God intervene to stop the deaths and destruction?  How can God have a loving, good intent toward those people and not save them? [1]

The question of what God’s intention is during disaster is one of the key issues.  Obviously Christians do not believe that God has any evil intentions.  The tornado itself—indeed the deaths themselves are not evil.  They are painful, but pain is morally neutral in itself.  It can be a servant of good and it can be a servant of evil.  Most of us would prefer not to have it, but it is not evil in itself.

For example, one reason our body has pain is to alert us that something is not right with our bodies.  Which is better, to feel a quick shot of pain because we have touched a hot burner or to burn our hand beyond recognition?  The pain in our chest, the pain that alerts us that we are having heart problems, it can save our lives, especially if it drives us to the doctor before a massive heart attack.

The displeasure of discipline, whether from our parents or from some other authority, can be of great benefit to us.  It can help us develop good habits that will bring us much greater pleasure later on.  At the very least it can help us avoid even greater pains.  It can steer our lives in more profitable directions.

There is an order to the world, “laws,” if you would.  Certainly humans create their own laws and rules, things that may or may not be beneficial.  These are a matter of human will and so enter into the question of good and evil.  But the laws of nature are a different matter when it comes to the question of evil.  In themselves, they are neither good nor evil.

Things fall down.  Gravity can keep us from flying off into space, or it can cause us to die falling off a cliff.  In both cases, gravity itself is neither good nor evil.  It just is.  It can have good and bad consequences, but this is a question of context, not of evil intent.

Gravity is thus morally neutral.  We can ask why God allows people to fall off cliffs.  We can ask why evil men and women push people off of cliffs.  But the gravity itself, the gravity that pulls people down when they are not standing on something, is not evil.  It just can have really unpleasant consequences.

I am arguing that things like cancer, tsunamis, and even car accidents to some extent are mostly the playing out of the laws of nature.  Human choices and human neglect can factor into them and to that extent they can have a moral element.  We can also ask why God does not stop them, which is a question of God as a moral agent. 

But we are arguing that these events themselves are largely the outworking of natural laws that God has built into the creation.  They bring pain and human suffering, but they are not evil in themselves.  Evil has to do with the intentions of moral agents.

Underlying this perspective is a fundamental distinction between events and their meaning, between actions and their significance.  Meaning and significance are a matter of minds, not of things.  An event or act in itself is only morally significant if it involves the intentions of a “moral agent” like God or a human being.

Since God sees everything, knows everything, since God designed the basic rules for the universe, then everything does have significance.  But God has created the universe as something different from himself.  He has made it a distinct reality from himself in some way we could not possibly imagine.  The significance of things is accordingly something outside themselves, a function of God’s mind looking on them.  And we obviously also find meaning in the world.

[1] We will discuss another approach to these issues later, namely, that good is by definition whatever God desires or wants.  God could not thus do anything evil by definition.  The problem here is that individuals usually use this definition to take actions the Bible elsewhere considers bad and make them good, while taking actions the Bible elsewhere considers good and make them bad.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What should I do...

... with my hypothetical first day of sabbatical?

I think I'll finish the Blackboard template for the Liderazgo and Auto-conocimiento courses, finalize the process for the Spring Congregational Relationships course, try to grade some courses I haven't finished grading...

I know it's coming... I just know it...

What is evil?

The first two posts of this possible booklet:

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations

What is evil?
On September 11, 2001, a cadre of terrorists, under the direction of a man named Osama bin Laden, hijacked four planes.  They flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  The attempt to fly a fourth plane, perhaps intended for the Capitol building, was foiled by its passengers.

The majority of those looking on immediately identified these actions as evil.  There were some, of course, who believed the United States had done things in the world that explained the hatred these individuals had for the US.  But even then, few thought that the response was justified.  Most of us would have no problem identifying those who delighted in the deaths of so many people as "evil."

We hear of things every day in the news that we quickly identify as evil.  A serial killer somewhere is systematically hunting, raping, and killing in some area of the country.  A man and his wife kidnap a young girl and they keep her in their secluded “compound” for years.  He rapes her regularly until finally she is discovered and freed.  Most of us are quick to identify these actions as evil.

A child goes missing and eventually the police arrest the mother for murder.  Their theory is that she duck taped the child’s mouth, perhaps suffocated the child.  Then they suggest she put the child’s body in the trunk of her car at some point.  She eventually buries the child not far from her home.  In this particular case, the mother was found not guilty and many in the public were enraged because they had come to the conclusion that this was an evil woman who had done horrible things.

But what makes these actions evil?  Before we can get to the question of why God allows such things to happen, we need to get clear in our minds exactly what it is about these things that makes them evil.  For example, are these sorts of evils the same as God allowing a tsunami or earthquake to kill 10,000 people?  If evil is simply a question of pain and suffering, then the pain of a tsunami seems to outweigh by far the suffering of one child who would suffocate in the space of a minute.  Are they the same?

We would argue that the problem of pain and the problem of evil must be separated as two separate issues, at least when we are trying to explain why God allows them.  The first issue asks why God allows people to suffer.  If God is perfect, then why do things incredibly less than perfect happen in the world?  Why do we get paper cuts and skinned knees?  Why do people die of cancer or get killed in a mud slide?

By contrast, the question of evil is why God allows individuals with evil motives to carry out their intentions.  Why does God allow murderers to kill other people?  Why does God allow the greedy to steal the life savings of the elderly?  Why does God allow men and women to cheat on their spouses and tear apart homes?

Evil is any intent or action that works against the love of God or your neighbor.  It is, most obviously, any intent or action that is deliberately harmful to others.  But it can also be intentions or acts of selfishness that harm others because we are willing to sacrifice others more indirectly in our own self-gratification or promotion.  Evil, as we are defining it, is always a matter of intention.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Now and Not Yet

We're saying my sabbatical officially began two minutes ago and only the life-sized, cardboard image of me is allowed in the office during work hours... but somehow I seem to have several important things still on my seminary to do list... ;-)

Questionable Explanations 2

In my mind, I am writing a booklet on suffering.  The first post was:

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
Christians deal with such perplexities in more than one way. If the suffering is distant, many have a tendency to say God sent such suffering as a punishment for sin. For example, the fact that the people of Indonesia and Japan are not predominantly Christian in religion made sin an easy explanation for the tsunamis that hit in 2004 and 2011 respectively. So God was punishing them for not having faith. Interestingly, we did not hear this explanation as much when tornados hit the Bible belt, where many churches were destroyed in a predominantly Christian area.

Many also saw September 11, 2001 as God’s judgment on the United States, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center towards and the Pentagon. What is interesting when Christians take this position is that they usually are not thinking of the specific individuals who died in these buildings, many of whom presumably were strong believers. They are rather thinking of a corporate guilt that applies to the nation as a whole rather than the actual individuals who suffered on those days. The individuals who suffer thus represent the rest of the nation, rather than being punished for their own sins.

As another example, Westboro Baptist Church, an ultra-fundamentalist group centered in Topeka, Kansas, picketed the funerals of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of this century. They did so to protest the prevalence of homosexuality in America and saw the deaths of American soldiers as God’s judgment on the United States. But ironically, they were not claiming that any of the individual soldiers whose funerals they protested were actually gay. They saw God’s judgment as a corporate rather than individual judgment. The deaths of these soldiers represented the punishment of the nation, regardless of how godly they might have been individually.

Despite how prevalent these sorts of comments are in the American church, they raise significant questions biblically and theologically.  Those who say such things are selective in the passages and examples they quote and generally miss the overall trajectory of Scripture on these topics.  Unfortunately, they can also manifest a spirit that is quite the opposite of the Spirit of Christ and the gospel of the New Testament.

A more loving, but I believe also problematic perspective on evil and suffering is taken by certain Calvinists like John Piper. [1] Because Piper believes that any true freedom on the part of God’s creation would contradict God’s authority and control over it—God’s “sovereignty”—he insists not only that God allows evil and suffering, but that God orchestrates it through Satan.  God is thus directly responsible for everything that happens in the world, both good and evil.  All evil and suffering brings glory to God in some way.

Suffice it to say, it seems very difficult to reconcile this picture of God with any meaningful sense of God as love.  We certainly would not consider a man or woman loving who directed someone else to murder children or behead a Christian.  It is one thing to say that, in some circumstance, God might directly cause suffering for a greater good.  It is another to say that he directs and causes all evil and suffering.

Another position is thus that while nothing happens without God's permission, God never causes someone to do evil. [2] He only allows evil to be done.  And just maybe, God more often than not allows suffering rather than directly willing it.  God could stop evil and suffering at any time, but he allows them for some bigger purpose.

[1] E.g., Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
[2] We might call this an Arminian position.