Come and See

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November 8, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. You can read more about what we believe here.

Come and See

The 10th Chapter of Acts recounts the events surrounding the conversion of the first gentile Christians—those in the household of the Roman Centurian Cornelius. As an artist and a naturalist, I have always been delighted by Peter’s vision of the sheet with commingled clean and unclean animals. But my reaction to the story as a follower of Christ is somewhat more complex: it has by turns thrilled, comforted and convicted me, for at various times in my life I have been on both sides of what was actually a double-conversion—of Cornelius the pagan turning to Jesus, and of Peter the Jewish Christian also turning towards Jesus, but away from his surety in who was “in” and who was “out” of the Kingdom of God. In the context of the BioLogos project, the image of Peter being led reluctantly along the Lord’s path offers a corrective to the way many—particularly Dr. Al Mohler—have joined the debate over the compatibility of science and faith.

The visions Peter saw of the sheet were, prior to any revelation that he was being sent to a gentile household, offensive to his sense of purity as a devout Jew who respected and loved the Law. Add to this that Cornelius was not just a gentile, but a military commander in the hated occupying forces of Imperial Rome. Though Peter came to understand that the vision meant he was to make no a priori judgments about who could and could not be saved by the grace of Jesus, the command from the Lord to “Get up, Peter. Kill, and eat” was an affront to his identity and was in direct contradiction to what he believed set him and the other Christians apart from the rest of humanity in addition to their confession of Jesus as Lord.

He clearly didn’t like it and proceeded with some reservations, but he was at least open to the leading of the Spirit, and was prepared to set his own prejudices aside to see what God was up to. Soon enough, Peter recognized that God was again upending his understanding of reality as much as of the Scriptures, just as He had with the irrational-seeming idea of a Messiah who died, and then the even more outrageous fact of a resurrected Jesus. In the end, the Lord did more than instruct Peter to share the Gospel of Jesus with Cornelius’s household, He demonstrated that repentance and belief in the Gospel of Jesus were, alone, the prerequisites for belonging to the family of God by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the men and women gathered under that Roman roof.

As Peter discovered, our theology is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is our collective and halting attempt to describe in coherent terms what we know of God by what we have seen of His acts and what we have read in His Word—and, above all else, by what we have seen in the acts of the Word, Jesus. And though it morphs into rules we try to impose on the divine and our neighbors, it does not in any way constrain the Lord who is constantly calling us in new ways, through new means, and telling new stories with the most unlikely characters. On the contrary, theology is put to the test not just by our logic, but by the witness of what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others around the world. Evidence of the Spirit at work is the only true measure we have of our theology; all other measures, including whether it fits our carefully-reasoned arguments of who is in and who is out, are vanity.

But, in very public fora of late, Dr. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been making it known that he regards those associated with the BioLogos project to be, at best “confused Christians,” with the implication being that we may be worse than unbelievers, dangerously leading the gullible to destruction. Despite his focus on the “logic” of our position vis-à-vis the Bible and his very specific definitions of both theology and evolutionary theory, the heart of Mohler’s claim that one cannot be a fully-functioning, authentic Christian and hold that God created using the process of evolution, is not, finally, about the compatibility of science and scripture, but about the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about the limits that Dr. Mohler has put on God’s ability to redeem and transform whomever He so pleases, in whatever manner He so pleases.

It is the same issue Peter faced when confronted with the vision of the sheet lowered out of heaven, which prepared him to meet Cornelius where he (and his family) were. Having seen the Holy Spirit poured out on these gentiles and former servants of Caesar, he had to ask, “Is there any reason why these should not be baptized?” In short, it is not a matter of whether Dr. Mohler (or Ken Ham, or Jerry Coyne, for that matter) find it reasonable or logically consistent or even in conformation with their readings of scripture, it is a matter of whether God has and is doing His redemptive work in the hearts, minds and lives of men and women who understand evolution to be a true material account of God’s creative work that does not in any way constrain God’s agency and sovereignty. And that is not an academic issue, but a very concrete and intensely personal one about the lives of those who hold views Dr. Mohler places outside the realm of truly following Christ.

Particularly coming from the head of the largest Southern Baptist seminary, Dr. Mohler’s repeated implications and suggestions, if not outright pronouncements, that I and anyone else who does not reject evolutionary processes are, therefore, not Christian in any but a nominal or diminished way, not authentic followers of Jesus no matter what we say and despite the evidence of the Holy Spirit both in us and working through us, seems to me to fly directly in the face of one of the central facets of Baptist tradition—that my salvation and relationship with the Father is not a matter for rulers or authorities or institutions to decide. Is there not a danger that 21st century ecclesiastical rulers and authorities might unwittingly oppose the Spirit through their all-too-human decrees, though their intention be to defend doctrines that are good and true and right?

We in the BioLogos community have on more than one occasion failed in our love precisely as Dr. Mohler and writers on all sides of this debate have. Nevertheless, our President, Darrel Falk, has repeatedly called (and been ridiculed from both left and right) for seeking unity among believers. I do not naively believe that we will miraculously come to a common understanding about the means God used in His creation, or how to read (or even translate) every passage in the Bible, or how best to organize our lives as believers together as Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Nazarenes, or Catholics, etc. Though such divisions, such divorces within the church are the surely result of the hardness of our hearts , our different theological and ecclesiastical traditions may also reflect God’s will and his desire to inhabit and work through all the myriad cultural environments in which we live, revealing and highlighting different aspects of His character in each. To the extent that we wrestle with each other over these issues with compassion and love, we demonstrate that even our conflicts may be redeemed by the Lord.

It is no small miracle that the Spirit is uniting a broken, diverse, and far-flung people into one Body, often—if not always—in spite of us, its members. In seeking unity we will see that the diversity within the Body formed by our common claim of being saved by the free, costly gift of God’s grace directs us towards a fuller understanding of the glory of God Himself and a greater humility before our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, while it is problematic that Dr. Mohler so warmly agrees with Jerry Coyne regarding the ‘logical compatibility’ of evolution and religious belief, more hurtful for the Church is Dr. Coyne’s nearly gleeful account of the lack of charity within the Christian community. Dr. Mohler’s attitude and tone provide what Coyne and others take as another proof that our faith is a foolish and destructive lie.

So, recalling Peter’s conversion along with that of Cornelius, I invite Dr. Mohler to refrain from condemning (even by faint praise) those whom the Spirit has sanctified and is sanctifying, and through whom He is calling more of the lost to Himself. More, I invite him to join me at the table as a brother and to put off the too-common practice of acting as if we know everything we need to know about those on the other sides of these issues from what we read on-line.

As Cornelius asked Peter “to stay with them for a few days” to see what the Lord would be teaching them together, I invite Dr. Mohler to come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of people in the BioLogos community. Come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of specific, real live Christians in my adopted home town of Richmond, Virginia. Come and see what I have seen for years in the hearts and lives of men and women of faith directed towards the Lord by their studies of evolutionary biology, and who see the glory of God in the very process you find ugly and abominable. Come see the Spirit at work in hearts and lives focused and unconfused in their pursuit of Jesus and of His Kingdom.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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Alex - #40403

November 17th 2010

@Papalinton - #40357

My point is that you’re not participating in a conversation.  You’re attacking a caricatured Christianity to which I do not ascribe, which is not essential to the faith, and which bears little resemblance to orthodox doctrine.

I’m sure you’d prefer that I professed a fantastically caricatured ultra-literalistic geocentric misogynistic racist imperialistic strawman, but I don’t, and you’d best deal with that fact.

I’m sure it’s greatly inconvenient to you that orthodox Christianity contains enough subtlety (“wiggle-room,” you call it) to account for paradoxes and challenges arising from an intellectual pursuit of God.

I really am terribly sorry.  I know you feel stymied, since you resort to calling ‘every’ version asinine without even coming close to responding to mine.

Now if you can overcome your vast disappointment and actually respond to my points, we might still be able to have an actual conversation after all.  But I fail to see the benefit in continuing a discussion with someone who does not understand theology, does not wish to understand it, and continues to deride it nonetheless.


Steve Ruble - #40414

November 17th 2010

@nedbrek and Martin,

I just don’t understand what you are trying to tell me about where meaning comes from.  Here’s I dialog I wrote once to try to illustrate, by analogy, how strange your position sounds to me:

Proog: “Do you realize that there are people in the world who don’t know you exist?”
Emo: “Yeah, so?”
P: “Well, doesn’t that bother you? That there are people walking around right now who don’t know about you? Who don’t care what you’re doing or how you’re feeling?”
E: “No, not really.”
P: “Why not? I mean, how can anything you do have any ultimate meaning if everybody doesn’t know about it?”
E: “I know about it. You might know about it. Why would I want everybody to know about it?”
P: “Because then it would have true meaning. Actions are only truly meaningful if every single person in the world knows about them and cares about them.”
E: “Why?”
P: “Because otherwise there are people for whom it isn’t meaningful, and if that’s true it can’t be truly meaningful, can it?”
E: “Why not?
P: “Because for some people it’s not meaningful!”
E: “So? Why should I care?”
P: “Because!”

Why is your concept of meaning less absurd than Proog’s?


Steve Ruble - #40416

November 17th 2010

@Martin,

I found your analogy very enjoyable, because it seemed to make just as much sense when I mentally substituted “believes there is a god” for “believes himself to be Napoleon”.

It was especially poignant when you closed with,

fantasy then becomes a refuge from reality, a mental mind game to keep our sanity, as we cloak our naked nothingness with an illusion of meaning.

It’s a pretty unpleasant world you think exists out there -  no wonder you’re unwilling to surrender your delusions.

Regarding your earlier post about ownership: surely you’ve heard of communism? The early Christians practiced it, after all. And you used the notion of intellectual property as an example of a common sense “ownership”! There’s probably no modern “right” more disputed, ad hoc, and arbitrary than the “ownership” of intellectual property.

You are assuming, without argument, that nothing exists whose existence cannot be empirically demonstrated.

It’s the opposite, Martin. I don’t assume the existence of entities for whom there is no evidence.  Even if it would make me feel good.  You do, because it does make you feel good.  That’s the difference between us.


Alex - #40422

November 17th 2010

@Steve Ruble - #40416

You write, “Surely you’ve heard of communism”

Communism = the corporate ownership of property. A society without ownership is impossible, simply because ownership (the use of a thing, the enjoyment of a thing, the disposal of a thing) is intrinsic to the very idea of property/things.  Not sure if that has any bearing on the discussion, but I though it should be clarified.

You write, “I don’t assume the existence of entities for whom there is no evidence.”

I may be wrong, but I think the point of the discussion is that your definition of “evidence” is a priori to your assumptions/non-assumptions. Christians accept the legitimacy of non-empirical evidence.  You evidently don’t.

The only point I would add is that, because both ideas are assumed *prior to* the use of evidence, it is impossible to evaluate either claim on an empirical basis.  It strikes me that this is why you seem content to say “I merely assume” (#40186) where the Christians in this thread seek to justify their assumptions on the basis on abstract thought, Ideas, analytic logic, etc.  If you don’t accept non-empirical evidence, it seems you’re unable to justify pre-empirical assumptions.


Alex - #40423

November 17th 2010

To clarify: I use “corporate ownership” in the general sense—owning “as a body/group.”  Communism is a “corporate” enterprise in that it roots property rights in “the people.”  Corporations are a “corporate” enterprise in that they are owned and directed by groups of people (board of directors, shareholders, etc.)  The “communism” of the early church predicated on private individuals giving up their ownership rights to the Church considered as a distinct corporate body.


Steve Ruble - #40426

November 17th 2010

Alex, I think it’s interesting that you are comfortable saying, “A society without ownership is impossible simply because ownership (the use of a thing, the enjoyment of a thing, the disposal of a thing) is intrinsic to the very idea of property/things,” but you reject my claim that respect is intrinsic to the very concept of “people”.  Don’t you think that a society of people who did not respect one another would be shortlived?


Alex - #40428

November 17th 2010

As I said before, “If you describe something as “intrinsically” A, then you’re saying that it is A by definition” (#40115).  We also agreed before that people are intrinsically worthy of respect (you seem to forget that I agree with this).

This intrinsic worthiness is grounded in our definition of humans—by your definition, due to their capacity for rationality and empathy; by mine, due to their reflection of the Image of God, manifested in the rational, moral, and aesthetic sensibilities.

I’m comfortable stating that ownership is intrinsic to property because property is defined as things which are used and enjoyed by humans.  This is why some of the earliest definitions of property and ownership referred to the concept of “usufruct” (usus + fructus = use and enjoyment).

I see no logical inconsistency here.


Steve Ruble - #40434

November 17th 2010

Mm, that wasn’t very well thought out. I guess societies without respect for people have lasted a long time.  However, I would venture that they have been based on an error - the error of thinking that thre was some trait that created an objective, relevent difference between the haves and the have nots. For example, the assumption that dark skin makes one inhuman, or that noble blood makes one special. In every radically unjust society those in charge have felt the need to give a reason justifying their disrespect for those subject to them.  Quite often, of course, that justification takes the form, “It it God’s will that…” because, again of course, your revelatory mode of “reasoning” is very easy to exploit.

But notice, here, that these exploiters are using a religious justification to defend themselves against an extra-religious feeling that people ought to be respected (I’ sure it’s happened the other way around as well). Isn’t it obvius, by now, that this assumption of human worth has nothing to do with theolodgical speculations?


Alex - #40437

November 17th 2010

“Quite often, of course, that justification takes the form, “It it God’s will that…” because, again of course, your revelatory mode of “reasoning” is very easy to exploit.”

No contest here.  Humans like things their own way, and if they can appeal to an incontestable authority to get it, they often will.  This is, after all, part of the package deal we call “original sin.”

Christians need to be humble in interpreting and reading special revelation, and must remember to balance it with knowledge from general revelation—science, philosophy, etc.  As far as I can tell, this is the part of the motivation for BioLogos.  At the same time, though, when special revelation is clear, we should not shy from asserting it as Truth, for it is a fuller depiction of God’s nature than general revelation can provide.

As for your final point, we recognize the worth of others because of outward effects—reason, empathy, beauty, etc. This is not extra-religious, since Christianity’s doctrine of human worth recognizes those outward effects.  I think you’re confusing your terms, and confounding ontology (what is real) with the epistemic (how we know it’s real).


Papalinton - #40439

November 17th 2010

Alex

You say to Steve,  “Christians accept the legitimacy of non-empirical evidence. “

That is all christians have to claim; quasi-legitimate, non-empirical, insubstantial, emotive sensations at the personal level as an explanatory tool,  much of which is derived through Apologetics, the co-requisite without which the bible is incapable of standing on its own merit.  That was one of the very reasons for the Reformation, in that Luther thought [you’ll appreciate Luther’s personal thought] each believer should have direct access to his/her god [and their own access to the bible]  rather than through the the cadre of priests and clergy as did the RCC.  Apologetics since that time really took off to ‘syncretise’, ‘harmonize’,  ‘homogenise’, bring into line, bring in tune, the massive levels of disparate positions, contradictions, inconsistencies, interpolations, varying polemics, and diametric recounts of the same story etc etc to mitigate if not expunge the degree of cognitive dissonance that would make any other form of human endeavour a non-sense discipline.

Quoting from the bible to substantiate christianity is akin to a drug addict put in charge of a pharmacist’s dispensary.

Cheers


Alex - #40441

November 18th 2010

Papalinton (#40439)

As I also said to Steve, ditto for you: “You evidently don’t.” But you do recognize the point that followed, right?  Since your assumption precede your acceptance of evidence, you can’t use that evidence to justify it.  Care to comment?

Your account of Luther and apologetics is rather confused.  You seem to conflate apologetics with theology.  Further, you seem to discount the mountain of theological discussion that occurred between Christ and Luther.  You should read St. Augustine, or better yet St. Thomas Aquinas.  And certainly, theology is a critical endeavor to the Christian faith: we are to love God with our hearts and our minds.  Why should we be surprised by the fact that we’re challenged by Christianity?

I disagree with your assessment of the Bible’s coherence and unity.  At the same time, I’m confident that our discussion on that score will be pretty fruitless.  I’m also reasonably certain you’ll bring it up in your response.  This is getting old.


Steve Ruble - #40443

November 18th 2010

My comment seems to have not made it to the site. Here’s another try:

@Alex,

You wrote, “Christians accept the legitimacy of non-empirical evidence.  You evidently don’t.” I don’t think that’s quite correct. Christians don’t accpt non-empirical evidence in general, they accept non-empirical evidence for Christianity. Christians reject the plentiful non-empirical evidence for Hinduism, Islam, and astrology with much the same vigor that I do. It’s that convenient, ad hoc attitude toward what counts as evidence that tends to persuade me that Christianity, like all the other faith-based ideologies, has no actual basis is reality.

Obviously, most revelations are false. Quite possibly, they all are. I don’t see any reason to reject the latter option.


Martin Rizley - #40453

November 18th 2010

Steve,  Proog’s reasoning is irrational, because how could meaning worth the name be rooted in the fact that a bunch of finite ‘cosmic flukes,’ as ephemeral as oneself, happen to know about one’s existence for a brief nanosecond of time?  On the other hand, if one is known, loved, and cared for by the infinite, eternal Creator and Sustainer of all, who is the original Knower and Interpreter of all things and whose interpretation of the world He has made is final and irrevocable, then we do have meaning—permanent meaning that abides forever, because God abides forever.  His personal relationship to His people also abides forever, giving everlasting significance to our existence.  Such meaning, rooted in the eternal life of God, does not appear and disappear in the batting of an eyelid, or vanish like a passing shadow, leaving no trace behind.  His existence provides us with ‘meaning’ that is worth the name, because it is enduring.  You say, “It’s a pretty unpleasant world you think exists out there.”  I do not believe the world is meaningless, but I have described as vividly as I can how bleak reality would look if the atheistic worldview were true—which it is not, thankfully.


Alex - #40456

November 18th 2010

Steve, you might want to read my earlier response (#40247) or my blog entry dealing with this issue:

I readily believe that other religions have grasped aspects of the truth, and may even represent partial revelations of God.  The book “Bruchko” mentions a indigenous prophecy helped ensure an audience for the Gospel in a South American tribe. The missionary was convinced that this prophecy was from God.

Whatever you think of the story itself, the point remains: the truth of Christianity does not intrinsically contradict all of the truth claims made by other religions.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s description of and identification with the Supreme God (15.16-15.20) strikes me as similar to Christ’s identification of Himself with God.

C.S. Lewis pointed out if Christianity were true, we should expect to find echoes of it elsewhere, for ancient peoples would be naturally drawn to the truth, just as we are drawn to themes of resurrection, sacrificial love, and messianic deliverance in our movies.

The Christian faith does not entail believing that everyone else is totally in error.  Indeed, if anything it’s the opposite.


Alex - #40457

November 18th 2010

It seems the link to my blog entry didn’t make it up to the post above.  Here it is, if you’re interested:
http://alex-binz.blogspot.com/2010/03/contemplations-in-theology-13.html


Martin Rizley - #40459

November 18th 2010

Steve, You also write, “I don’t assume the existence of entities for whom there is no evidence.”  No one is asking you to do that; I am urging you to face up to the existence of a Being whose existence is so self-evident you can only deny it by using the categories of rational thought you only have because the universe has a rational origin.  If the universe truly had an irrational origin, then the stream of thoughts you are expressing to me in words would be nothing but an “epiphenomenon” of the brain, produced deterministically by random chemical reactions in the organ enclosed within your brain.  There would be no rhyme or reason to those chemical reactions, so you might as well say “evidence no is there whom for entities of existence the assume don’t I.”  The very rationality, direction, and PURPOSEFULNESS of your thought, by which you are tyring to deny God’s existence, bears testimony to the reality of His existence.  That is why Van Til compared the atheist to a person who must climb up into his father’s lap in order to slap him in the face.  You can’t deny Him without using the very tool of rationality He has given you to recognize Him.


Alex - #40466

November 18th 2010

Martin (#40459)

I think your argument is true—our ability to recognize and deal with abstract truths is grounded in God.

But I also think your argument has effectively zero chance at convincing anyone who isn’t already convinced of its truth.

You’re trying to move three levels with a single argument.  Your argument is geared towards persuading Steve from pure empiricism/physicalism to a kind of Idealism (which recognizes the existence of objective/ontological truth, even if our finite minds cannot reach it with certainty). This is the extent of your argument.

The next step is theism, and only then can we move to Christianity. But the original argument doesn’t go that far, and we shouldn’t overreach.  Steve is smart enough to recognize that the conclusion (Christianity) doesn’t follow the premise (abstract truth), and rejects the argument for that reason.  By overreaching, you allow him to avoid answering the more essential and fundamental question at this point, which is Idealism.


Martin Rizley - #40469

November 18th 2010

Alex,  In my comments above in #40459 I am not focusing on what people know about God through special revelation (His redeeming love in Christ), but only on what God has made clear to all people everywhere concerning His existence and divine nature through general revelation.  Paul says that all human beings know that God exists, so there is no such thing as an ‘honest atheist,’ by which I mean, someone who literally possesses no knowledge of God’s existence, and for that reason, fails to recognize Him.  I know that Steve and Papalinton may be upset with me for saying that, but I am simply affirming what Paul affirms in Romans 1.  He says that God has revealed Himself clearly to every person through the things that are made, and that revelation ‘gets through’ to our human understanding—so that people are without excuse when they deny God’s existence and refuse to give Him thanks for His gifts (Romans 1:18-21).  It is true that when people suppress the truth in their hearts through unrighteousness, their minds are darkened, and they can be said to be ignorant of God—(continued)


Martin Rizley - #40471

November 18th 2010

but that ignorance is blameworthy, because it is maintained through a wilful closing of one’s spiritual eyes to what is self-evidently true.  So I believe it is our calling as Christians to point out to people what they already know about God through general revelation—namely, that God is a rational Being, and that His rationality is the source of their own.  If there were no rational origin to the universe, then human thoughts would be random chemical reactions in the brain, with no direction, meaningfulness or purposefulness, which is not the case.  So I think that people understand, through general revelation (even if they suppress that knowledge), that their own rationality is rooted in the rational origin of the universe, and that rational origin is necessarily personal in character, for what impersonal, unconcious force could be conceived of as being inherently ‘rational’?  To put it another way, the existence of objective/ontological truth implies the existence of a conscious, rational, and personal Being in whom that truth is ‘rooted,’ for truth is a category of thought and thought is a function of mind—the eternal mind of God.  All these things are “manifest,”  I believe, through general revelation.


Papalinton - #40521

November 18th 2010

@ Martin:
I have crystalised the following definitions from your comment [40469 and 40471]

.  Christian: one who follows the teachings of christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
.  Clairvoyant:  A person, usually female, who has the power of seeing that which ism invisible to her patron - namely,  that he is a blockhead.
.  Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
.  Evangelist: A bearer of good tidings, particularly such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbours.
.  Infidel:  In New York, one who does not believe in the christian religion, in Istanbul [Constantinople], one who does.
.  Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
.  Religion: A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
.  Reverence:  The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
.  Saint:  A dead sinner revised and edited.
.  Scriptures:  The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

Cheers


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