Monday, December 29, 2014

The Vatican Speaks Out for Millions of Poor Victims, and the Mainstream Media Ignores It

Recent news reports state that Pope Francis will very soon release an encyclical that calls on Roman Catholics to work to reduce human-induced climate change and its related, serious upheavals. It is somewhat akin to stepping into the middle of a firefight. The climate scientists who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals have come to a widespread agreement that recent human activity has released enough carbon into the atmosphere to provoke a radical warming trend. You would never know this, however, if you prefer to pay attention to GOP presidential hopefuls, who rely on press releases from wealthy oil and coal industry funded research organizations to dispute the scientific consensus.

Why would the Roman Catholic church step into such a messy debate? Wouldn't it be safer to stay on the sidelines? Well, Pope Francis has never been one to value safety over faithfulness, and he has been vigorously leading the church in following her Lord's footsteps--which as we know, led to a gruesome crucifixion about 2000 years ago.* Moreover, the Roman Catholic church has a longstanding commitment to promoting responsible stewardship of our environment on behalf of future generations. As the US Catholic Conference of Bishops explains:

Care for the earth is a duty of our Catholic faith. We all are called to be careful stewards of God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for vulnerable human beings now and in the future.

Okay, we can understand why human-induced climate change would be an important issue to Catholic faith--assuming that the almost-unanimous opinion of published climate scientists is correct. But has the Church leadership done its scientific research homework to lead the flock on this controversial issue?

Let me answer the question with a question: did you know that the Vatican sponsors a Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help it gain a sound understanding of scientific issues? Before today, I didn't.** Just three years ago, the Academy commissioned a working group of glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists, physicists, chemists, mountaineers, and lawyers to study the issue of glacier melt and its underlying causes. This esteemed group came to the following conclusion:

In response to the argument that 'since the Earth has experienced alternating cold periods (ice ages or glacials) and warm periods (inter-glacials) during the past, today’s climate and ice cover changes are entirely natural events', we state:

The primary triggers for ice ages and inter-glacials are well understood to be changes in the astronomical parameters related to the motion of our planet within the solar system and natural feedback processes in the climate system. The time scales between these triggers are in the range of 10,000 years or longer. By contrast, the observed human-induced changes in carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and soot concentrations are taking place on 10-100 year timescales –at least a hundred times as fast. It is particularly worrying that this release of global warming agents is occurring during an interglacial period when the Earth was already at a natural temperature maximum.

Moreover, the Vatican working group states that this human-induced climate change is not just melting glaciers:

Human-caused changes in the composition of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year and threaten water and food security —especially among those “bottom 3 billion” people who are too poor to avail of the protections made possible by fossil fuel use and industrialization.

Now it is easier to understand why Pope Francis is planning to use his influence on the climate change issue: he is speaking up for the millions of poor who are already dying. While I can scarcely claim to know the mind of His Holiness, I suspect his encyclical will recommend action similar to the three recommendations of the Vatican working group:

I. Reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay, using all means possible to meet ambitious international global warming targets and ensure the long-term stability of the climate system. All nations must focus on a rapid transition to renewable energy sources and other strategies to reduce CO2 emissions. Nations should also avoid removal of carbon sinks by stopping deforestation, and should strengthen carbon sinks by reforestation of degraded lands. They also need to develop and deploy technologies that draw down excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These actions must be accomplished within a few decades.

II. Reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants (dark soot, methane, lower atmosphere ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons) by as much as 50%, to slow down climate change during this century while preventing millions of premature deaths from respiratory disease and millions of tons of crop damages every year.

III. Prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate. In particular, we call for a global capacity-building initiative to assess the natural and social impacts of climate change in mountain systems and related watersheds.

How Will the Faithful Respond?

The Roman Catholic faithful will be tested severely when the encyclical is released. Even today, Catholics might subscribe to the Fox News and GOP stance on climate change because they simply aren't aware of the Church's stance on the issue. Have you seen the conclusions of the Vatican's scientific commission reported before you read this post? Climate change is an issue I follow, but I never saw any such news. But when the Pope releases an encyclical, this incipient conflict between the Church's leadership on the one side and a well-moneyed assemblage of powerful politicians and wealthy capitalists on the other will no longer be in the shadows. Which side will the faithful choose?

Even though I have left the Roman Catholic church in favor of evangelical Protestantism, I still have tremendous respect for its courageous leadership on issues of social justice. Consequently, I will not be a sideline observer as the drama unfolds. I will do whatever I can to stand with my brothers and sisters in the catholic faith*** in favor of the poor who are dying because of unanticipated consequences of our carbon-based modern economy. Change to a sustainable economic market economy won't be easy...but since when does the ease of the task dictate the terms of our service to our Lord, who suffered a cruel death for the sake of His flock?

* And a subsequent resurrection! Pope Francis, by the way,  is not by a long shot the only Roman Catholic leader with this vision of preferring faithful service to safety and comfort. He just happens to be communicating the vision with particular clarity and visibility of late.

** How many denominations or Christian organizations have such a commitment to scientific inquiry as to maintain a staff of world-class scientific talent? I am impressed with the Roman Catholic church's approach.

***  In Latin, "catholic" means universal, and I consider evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox adherents, etc., to be members of the universal church.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Textual Criticism, Explained by Dr. James White

Textual criticism, like any of academia's black arts, can serve many masters. Filtering the scribal errors from the Bible's manuscript tradition in order to recover the original text does not inherently breed unbelief. Many textual critics contend, however, that the vast number of variants between the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts make it impossible to determine what the original manuscripts said. Bart Ehrman, the most prominent scholar on the subject, has published 27 books that include these flamboyant titles:

"Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why"
"Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are"
"How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee"

James White, the founder of Alpha and Omega Ministries, thinks that the evangelical church has done a very poor job of explaining the manuscript tradition of the Bible. I have to agree; most of the Christians I've known display little grasp of the subject. The problem, according to White, is that the evangelical student enters college a firm believer in inerrancy, convinced by the sermons he (or she) has heard and the worldview seminars he's attended--but knows nothing about the manuscript tradition. Then he reads a book by Bart Ehrman--or has a roommate who's read Ehrman--and is thrown for a very serious loop.

Instead, White contends, we Christians need to deal with the manuscripts as they exist, not as we wish they existed. If we believe that God cares about the truth, then we shouldn't be afraid of the manuscript tradition, warts and all. And indeed, a careful examination of the subject reveals that we have nothing to fear.

When White debated Erhman a few years ago (video here, transcript here), he made these following key points:

1. While there are more variants than words in the Greek New Testament, the vast majority are either insignificant (e.g., spelling errors) or not viable (i.e., they are not attested in any of the best and most ancient manuscripts). Only 1% of the NT words are subject to any significant variants.

2. The variants that remain do not rise to the level of calling into question any of the orthodox teachings of Christianity. For example, it is hard to discern on the basis of Greek manuscripts whether Jesus responded to the leper in Mark 1:41 with anger or with compassion. But in either case, neither of the possibilities change our view of Jesus. (Here's how my analysis runs: if Jesus responded with anger, then he discerned that the leper was bitterly accusing him of not wanting to heal. We see Jesus in other passages responding to willful doubt with anger, so our understanding of Jesus would not change. And of course if Jesus responded with compassion, that would be consistent with many other Gospel passages as well.)

3. Scribes had a bias toward keeping what was passed down to them. They occasionally made errors of various kinds (such as spelling errors), but there is no evidence that scribes just omitted or deliberately skewed passages they didn't like. This means that we can carefully reconstruct the original text, since one of the variants in a passage has preserved the original, even if other variants are in error. White compares the manuscript tradition to a 1000 piece puzzle with 1010 pieces: with due care, you can assemble the puzzle while discarding the extra pieces.

4. The rapid distribution of NT documents across the world, as attested by the manuscript tradition, made it impossible for anyone in a central location--say, Rome--to corrupt the text. They had no way of hiding or destroying all the existing copies, thousands of which we possess today. In other words, libraries get it right when they put Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code in the fiction stacks.

On the other hand, Ehrman makes an interesting case for our inability to prove that we truly have the original text. Could it be that the manuscripts we have today only go back to a second or third generation copy? This certainly seems possible. And since copying was an imperfect process, Ehrman continues, maybe that second- or third-generation source of our manuscripts was not identical to the original.

However, that argument does not seem winning to me, at least in the sense of destroying orthodox Christian faith. As we have seen, 99% of transmission errors we know about are irrelevant (e.g., spelling mistakes), and none of them influence doctrine. Since the numerous transmission errors we know about are so innocuous, there is no reason to conclude that a transmission error we don't know about might somehow have been nefarious. To re-use a metaphor, just because one or two pieces are missing from a 1000 piece puzzle doesn't mean we can't feel confident about the picture we assemble. Also, Catholic and Orthodox scholars would hasten to add that the church itself, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, assured the faithful transmission of the gospel of the kingdom during the hundreds of years before the canon was finalized.

Before I conclude this post, I do want to express a couple of important disagreements with White. First, when he attacks Peter Enns' scholarship, I feel he does so unfairly. After noting that Enns thinks the Genesis creation accounts "breathe the same air" as the Babylonian creation myths, White states that it's irrelevant because the Genesis account, unlike the Babylonian, presents a God who existed before anything in the universe, a God who created everything out of nothing by simply speaking it into being, and who both loves and holds everyone human accountable. But in fact, Enns also notes these same key differences between the Biblical and Babylonian accounts. So White must not have read Enns very carefully.

Secondly, White regards evolution as terrible stumbling block. He thinks it impossible to love God and obey Him radically if you believe what scientists say about evolution. As I have stated previously, the equation of Biblical inspiration with young earth creationism does a great disservice to the church, especially our young adults.* When the topic is textual criticism, White has the right attitude: we should accept the facts of the manuscript tradition, because a deep understanding gives us nothing to fear. I wish White would also accept the facts we learn from biology, geology, and astronomy, because a right understanding of our magnificent 13.8 billion year old universe, and the evolution of life over these past 3.5 billion years, likewise gives us nothing to fear. Scientist-theologians like John Polkinghorne and apologists like Vern Poythress aver that a right understanding of the science can lead us to marvel at our Creator and worship Him more deeply; I concur wholeheartedly.

With these two caveats, I commend James White's scholarship to you.**

What do you think? Do we need to understand the Biblical manuscript tradition, warts and all? Can we believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, even today? Leave a comment!

* I am not saying that YECs are heretics, or hate God, or anything like that. The disservice is the converse: a lot of YECs (such as Ken Ham) claim that those who disagree with the YEC position are in terrible peril, heretics, or fundamentally disobedient to God. This stance, repeated vehemently and frequently, leaves someone who wants to be faithful to God--while dealing with scientific evidence authentically--in dire straits.

** A tip of the hat to my blogging friend whitefrozen (Josh Gillies) for pointing me to James White's material on textual criticism.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Faith-Based Science: The Earth Is Motionless While the Sun Revolves Around It

The most esteemed Bible scholars of the Reformation believed that contemporary scientists like Copernicus were peddling a heresy when they contended that the earth revolved around the sun. The only possible interpretation of many verses, according to these scholars, was that the earth was at the center of God's universe, and the sun revolved around it.

Here's Martin Luther (from Table Talk) exegeting Joshua 10:12 -
"There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] “So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth."

Here's John Calvin exegeting Psalm 104:5 -
"Here the prophet celebrates the glory of God, as manifested in the stability of the earth. Since it is suspended in the midst of the air, and is supported only by pillars of water, how does it keep its place so stedfastly that it cannot be moved? This I indeed grant may be explained on natural principles; for the earth, as it occupies the lowest place, being the center of the world, naturally settles down there."

In the same reference we find Phillip Melanchthon's condemnation of heretics who teach that the earth revolves around the sun:
"The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves . . . Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it."

Many evangelical scholars today insist that the only possible way to interpret the Genesis creation account involves a literal 6 24-hour days. This stance is remarkably similar to that of Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon, who taught that rejecting a literal interpretation of certain Bible passages was unbelief. We evangelicals usually consider ourselves to be the heirs of the great reformers. Yet here we are today, completely at ease with a metaphorical, rather than a literal, exegesis of Psalm 104:5 because we accept the scientific theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

I believe the universe is 13.8 billion years old, the earth is 4.8 billion years old, and the early chapters of Genesis are not to be interpreted in the most literal manner possible. Consequently I sometimes feel like a cultural outsider in the evangelical movement. So I make this plea: before we jump to conclusions about how the early chapters of Genesis must be interpreted, let's look at the history of the exegesis of passages like Psalm 104:5 and Joshua 10:12. The question of what in the Bible is literal and what is metaphorical is not easy to answer. But let's learn from the mistakes of Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon; let's be open to what we can learn from the scientists who study the works of God, which ultimately are in harmony with His words.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Governor Haley: Please Care About the 200,000 South Carolinians Who Are Shut Out of the Health Care Marketplace

Honorable Governor Haley -

You have made a lot of noise to the press about the supposed dangers of federal dollars. If they are so terrible, why did your own office of Executive Policy and Programs obtain 73% of its funds from the federal government in 2012-13?

Moreover, almost 40% of your 2012-13 budget for SC was funded by federal dollars.

It is quite evident that you are against federal dollars, except when you are for them.

Surely the plight of SC's poor should make you reconsider this glaring inconsistency. If SC's roads, ports, education, and commerce can benefit from federal funds, why should our noble and gracious state refuse to expand Medicaid enrollments for the poor?

I am aware of the Healthy Outcomes Plan that you have championed in lieu of Medicaid expansion. Unfortunately, it has only enrolled about 3000 impoverished individuals to date, and if it reaches its target (which seems very unlikely) it will have enrolled 8500. Contrast that to Medicaid expansion, which would have enrolled over 200,000 individuals.

After performing the simple math, I must sadly conclude that you are directly responsible for approximately 200,000 poor South Carolinians' lack of health care coverage. The Healthy Outcomes initiative is scarcely a drop in the bucket compared to this vast number of indigent South Carolinians who are shut out of the health care market.

SC already accepts over a billion federal dollars annually in order to provide Medicaid to approximately 800,000 South Carolinians. If you are so opposed to federal Medicaid dollars, why are you not ending the SC Medicaid program immediately? I suppose the fact that those 800,000 South Carolinians would greatly suffer, and sow further chaos into the SC health care marketplace is sufficient explanation.

If 800,000 is good, why isn't 800,000 + 200,000 better?

Please, Governor Haley, stop trying to look good to wealthy Republican donors, and start showing you care about the well-being of 200,000 South Carolinians who are shut out of the health care market.

Respectfully yours,

Chris Falter
Summerville, SC

Monday, March 10, 2014

Global Warming: Fred Singer is Skeptical

A few days ago I received an email from someone I deeply respect who is better connected in conservative political circles than I. He had forwarded it from a chain that included Tea Party members and email addresses at, and everyone seemed impressed that PBS, that purported bastion of fuzzy-headed liberal mushiness, had published an interview with Fred Singer, a climatologist and renowned global warming skeptic. My correspondent joked with me, referring to global warming as "the Gore theory." That's funny! First Gore invents the internet without the help of technologists, then he single-handedly turns climate science on its ear by creating a new theory that no scientist had every considered or researched in any way.* But on to the interview.
First, all those Tea Party groups that were suddenly planning to join fund-raising campaigns for PBS might want to reconsider: the interview was one of five that PBS conducted with scientists in conjunction with their "What's Up with the Weather?" investigation, and the other four scientists all agree with the anthropogenic global warming theory. Kudos to PBS for airing a minority dissent along with the consensus, but there's no reason to conclude that PBS was endorsing Singer's views.
More importantly, Singer gave the interview in April 2000. Fourteen years ago. Fast-moving climate scientists have done a lot of research since this interview was published. Fourteen years ago, Singer identified some unanswered questions that had led him to dissent from the consensus, but do his critiques still apply in 2014?
Climate scientists, like the scientists in other disciplines, abhor a vacuum of knowledge, so they've been steadily pushing back the boundaries of ignorance and uncertainty. When I was a kid my dad, whose only barrier to being beatified by the Church is that he is still energetically and joyfully among the living, gave me a subscription to an "astronomy for kids" series that I loved. I still remember the plum-colored covers, the single-staple cardboard binding, and the serious questions about whether the universe was essentially steady-state (as Einstein believed) or had originated in a big bang. At that time the vast majority of astronomers subscribed to the Big Bang, but a few steady-state holdouts didn't believe the evidence was convincing. Winning them over to the consensus required the confirmation of cosmic background microwave radiation, which won its discoverers the Physics Nobel in 1978. What had seemed likely but not quite conclusive in the mid-1960s became accepted as fact after further research.**
Personally, I am always eager to hear out dissenters--with whom I feel a certain kinship--so I read Singer's arguments with a willingness to be convinced. But knowing its age, I wanted to find out if later research confirmed or refuted his ideas. Would subsequent developments support his contentions, or would his statements look like the last gasp of the steady-state astronomers in the 1960s? In the remainder of this post, I'd like to assess Singer's arguments in the light of subsequent research.

Singer Contention #1: The Earth has not been warming.

"Since 1979, our best measurements show that the climate has been cooling just slightly. Certainly, it has not been warming."
What does subsequent research show?
Oceans, which hold 80% of the heat energy from the sun, have actually been warming from 1979 to today. This August 2013 source looks back at the past decade of oceanic temperature research and concludes: "How do scientists resolve these kind of disputes – bearing in mind that such disputes are the very stuff of science, the essence of true scepticism? One way is to find more data sources – different ways of measuring the phenomenon in dispute. By using results from seven different teams of scientists, all using different tools and methods, we are able to see a clear trend. And while there is variation between team results due to the differences in technique and measurement methods, one thing they all agree on: long term, [oceanic] temperatures are going up."

Satellite measurements of troposphere heat content (most of the remainder of earth's solar heat energy) show warming. These are the measurements that Singer purports to trust ("I personally prefer to trust in weather satellites.")

Discrepancies that existed in 2000 between surface and satellite measurements of temperature have been subsequently resolved; the data irrefutably indicate a trend toward higher temperature now. The above link includes this paragraph: "Previously reported discrepancies between the amount of warming near the surface and higher in the atmosphere have been used to challenge the reliability of climate models and the reality of human-induced global warming... This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected. New data sets have also been developed that do not show such discrepancies."

Singer Contention #2: Global climate models are too imprecise and do not include cloud feedbacks.

"Until the observations and the models agree, or until one or the other is resolved, it's very difficult for people--and for myself, of course--to believe in the predictive power of the current models. ...  the clouds are not captured by the models. Models are not good enough to either depict clouds or to even discuss the creation of clouds in a proper way. So it's not possible at this time to be sure how much warming one will get from an increase in carbon dioxide."
What does subsequent research show?
Models are not perfect, but they have proven very useful, and in fact have been quite accurate in predicting trends over the past 24 years, in spite of their limitations.  As of 2013 models have successfully incorporated cloud interactions.

Singer Contention #3: The worst case scenario for rising sea level is not very bad.

"Of course, if the warming is extreme, and melts all the ice caps, all bets are off. But no one is talking about that."
What does subsequent research show?
The melting of the ice caps is a very serious long-term concern that portends devastating consequences.

Singer Contention #4: Jim Hansen is backpedaling on the predictive value of climate models.

"One of the leading climate modelists is Jim Hanson. [sic] He actually was the man who, ten years ago, went out on a limb and said he was sure the enhanced greenhouse effect was here. He now says we can't really tell. He says the forcings are so uncertain that they're much more important than the climate models. In other words, until we get the forcings straight, the climate-model predictions are not worth very much. That is basically what he said."
A 2013 interview with Jim Hansen, however, shows that he is strongly convinced by the climate models:
“If we burn even a substantial fraction of the fossil fuels, we guarantee there’s going to be unstoppable changes” in the climate of the earth, he said. “We’re going to leave a situation for young people and future generations that they may have no way to deal with.” 

Singer Contention #5: Hemispheric differentials in temperature increase refute climate models.

"Are the aerosol effects hiding the effect of carbon dioxide now? We can tell. We can find an answer to this, because we can look for fingerprints in the climate record. Since aerosols are mostly emitted in the northern hemisphere, where industrial activities are rampant, we would expect the northern hemisphere to be warming less quickly than the southern hemisphere. In fact, we would expect the northern hemisphere to be cooling. But the data show the opposite. Both the surface data and the satellite data agree that, in the last 20 years, the northern hemisphere has warmed more quickly than the southern hemisphere. So it contradicts the whole idea that aerosols make an important difference."
What does subsequent research show?
Climate models can and do account for the difference in hemispheric temperature increase. The two key factors are global ocean currents and hemispheric differences in land mass.
  • The Journal of Climate published two studies in April 2013 that show global ocean currents "transport heat away from southern waters and into the North Atlantic and North Pacific, helping to warm nearby land areas in the north even more." Researchers at Columbia University have confirmed this finding.
  • Per this 2013 research, "the Northern Hemisphere has more land and less ocean than the Southern Hemisphere, and oceans warm relatively slowly."

Conclusion: Singer Needs to Write a New Song

I am sure that tens of thousands of folks like my correspondent, maybe millions, have read the Singer interview without realizing just how much the field of climate science has changed in 14 years. The evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming has greatly strengthened since he gave the interview to PBS. The leadership of the Roman Catholic church, among many others, believes that we can no longer afford to wait for more scientific research: to be responsible stewards of God's creation, we must act now to counteract the consequences of global warming.*** I hope to explore the ethical implications of the scientific research in a future post. But for now, let the scientists have their say: the earth is warming because we have released carbon wastes into the environment, and the consequences will likely be grave.

* Irony alert! Irony alert!

**Helping the formation of the Big Bang consensus was the lack of a well-funded industry, concerned about its long-term profitability and willing to fund dissident scientists, that needed to refute Big Bang astrophysics.

***Look for a discussion of views of Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders in a future post.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What in the World is God Doing? -- Acceptance vs. Exclusivity

The emerging generation ("Millenials") has a much more inclusive approach to friendships and doctrine than their elders in the typical evangelical church. The Barna Group's research has identified exclusivity as one of the top 6 reasons that young people leave evangelical churches. So last Wednesday Linda and I talked about acceptance and exclusivity with some of our church's college-age members in our weekly "What in the World is God Doing?" Bible study.

We studied Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, found in the fourth chapter of John. First, some background: the Samaritans claimed to be the true followers of Abraham, but they also incorporated some elements of pagan practices into their monotheism. This syncretism angered the Jews, who rejected the Samaritans' truth claims on the basis of their own possession of and adherence to the unadulterated Scriptures. Jews would go out of their way to avoid having any personal encounters with Samaritans, even adjusting their travel plans to avoid meeting any.

How does this relate to us? The evangelical fervor for "traditional values" and "America's Christian roots" often mirrors the Jews' feelings about the Samaritan assault on the truth. We may not cross the street to avoid meeting an openly gay person, but we may harbor an inward hostility toward the gay community. So the way Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman can guide us in our relationships with "outsiders." Let's take a look at our Lord's way.

Jesus Treated the Samaritan Woman as a Friend

The fact that he was chatting with a Samaritan woman astonished his disciples (v. 27), both as a result of her ethnicity and of her gender. Maybe we evangelicals should astonish the folks around us by hanging out with LGBT friends once in a while.


Jesus Did Not Denounce, He Asked Questions

Jesus did not agree with everything the woman said. However, he did not denounce her, her behavior, or her beliefs. Instead, he asked questions. He started by asking for a drink, which lowered the barrier of mistrust and, at the same time, allowed him to slip in an insight about spiritual life ("Whoever drinks the water I give ... will never thirst"). Then he posed an incisive question ("Where is your husband?") that helped her to see her need for God's help.

Jesus Set Aside the Minor Issues

Once the woman realized that she was talking to a teacher who could answer her questions, she wanted to find out where he stood on the number one issue Samaritans and Jews argued over:

"Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

But Jesus refused to get dragged into this controversy:

"Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

In heaven, Jesus explained, we will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, so where we worship now is not the critical issue. I believe Jesus would have a similar outlook on many of today's burning issues. In the perspective of heaven, your stance on gun control is peripheral (we won't own guns in heaven); likewise your view on how to interpret the Constitution (we will be in perfect submission to our heavenly King), on tax policy (we won't be paying taxes in heaven), etc.

Jesus Focused on Relationship and Hope

Once Jesus had developed a rapport with the woman, he didn't back down from speaking the truth ("salvation is from the Jews"). However, he emphasized that God earnestly desired a relationship in Spirit and in truth with her:

"A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

And he presented himself as the fulfillment of the hope of her religion:

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

We should have the same focus as Jesus. We must help our friends--liberal or conservative, LGBT or straight, Muslim or Jew, Mormon or Hindu--know that the hopes they harbor are fulfilled in Christ. Let's help them feel our acceptance, sidestep the peripheral issues, and have a life-changing encounter with Jesus. If we are patient and accepting, they can begin the journey of faith; and we can trust that our Savior will not neglect to lead them and transform them in His time and in His way.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Doubt: Seedbed of Despair or of Spiritual Growth?

I am no stranger to doubt.

Since my late teens I have from time to time lacked a strong conviction about the Christian faith. At one time or another, I have seriously entertained notions like:

Maybe it is all just atoms and physics and chance.

Is there really a heaven?

If there is, why won't God accept my unbelieving friends and family if he loves them so much?

The purpose of this confession is not to sow confusion amongst my fellow Christians. And I'm not going to give you 20 answers to those questions. Instead, I want to encourage any readers who have struggled with these or similar notions that you are not alone. Moreover, you can use your doubt as an opportunity to grow spiritually. I'm confident of that because I am no spiritual giant, and yet I have managed to grow as I've dealt as honestly as I can with doubts. Or rather, God has grown me.

A Story from the Gospels

You have no doubt heard evangelical Christians talk about the evils of doubt, as I have. Doubt is unequivocally a sin in the view of many pastors and leaders, and I refer my readers to this free online book for a primer from this perspective. If you are doubting, this view goes, you should just shut the devil's voice up (that's what doubt is) and get strong enough to believe with all your heart. Once you're strong in belief, you'll be free of doubt and have all the answers you'll ever need. Just believe and stop doubting already!

Alas, many of us do not seem to possess the kind of brain that can just suppress thoughts and arguments that rattle about our skulls. We have to deal honestly and try to get some sort of answers for life's persistent questions.* Is there hope for us?

Let's read about the man sometimes referred to as the patron saint of doubt:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” - John 20:19-25

I can so identify with Thomas. I don't need enthusiasm, I need evidence! Fortunately, the story does not stop there:

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:26-29

"Stop doubting and [just] believe" is the message you so often hear among Christians. But we need to see the rest of the story. As in: if Thomas was doubting, why was he even present when Jesus appeared a week later?

This is a critical question, so think about it with me carefully: what does the fact that Thomas was hanging out with the other disciples tell us about doubt?

Two Principles for Dealing with Doubt

The first thing we can learn from Thomas' story is that the church must be merciful and very, very patient with those who doubt. After all, the other disciples didn't kick Thomas out, right? And I doubt that they were shouting "Stop doubting and just believe!" at him all week. They were practicing, instead, the kind of mercy and patience that Jesus had demonstrated when Nicodemus brought all his questions to Jesus late one night. Indeed, one of the other eleven in the room later wrote:

"Be merciful to those who doubt." - Jude 22

Secondly, we see that the one who doubts must not just give up. Thomas kept hanging around the community of faith. He was willing to give God a chance to answer his questions. Doubt is not an excuse to just run away! The kind of doubt that the Scriptures warn against is the kind that people use as an excuse to just go off, be selfish, and reject hope.

A New Definition of Faith

The Greek word that we translate as faith in the New Testament is pistis. The interesting thing about this word is that it has very little, if anything, to do with intellectual assent. Instead, it refers to faithfulness. A Scriptural view of faith equates it to being faithful, not to suppressing questions. This is why James talks about faith as inevitably producing good works: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds!" (James 2:18) Faith is not intellectual assent, it is a faithfulness that bears fruit.

This new definition of faith demands a new definition of doubt. We usually equate doubt to wanting answers to tough questions, but that is not what the Biblical admonitions about doubt refer to. If doubt is the opposite of faith, then the doubt the Bible warns us against is faithlessness.

Are you willing to try an act of faithfulness in the midst of your questions? Are you willing to hang out for a while with the convinced believers until you encounter Christ? If so, you may one day find yourself evangelizing south Asia, as Thomas did!

God Can Use Our Anguished Questions

Usually we equate doubt with anguished questions, but we have just seen that the Bible defines doubt somewhat differently than we do. To maintain clarity, then, I'm going to use the term anguished questions in place of doubt. And the conclusion of the matter, for me, is that God can use our anguished questions to rebuild us.

We saw this in the story of Thomas: once he encountered the risen Savior, he knew he had received the answers that he needed...and not just for himself, but for the world around him.

We also see this in the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We all know about her beautiful and radical ministry to the poor, but it was only with the posthumous release of her letters that we learned of her decades-long struggle with serious questions. She often wondered whether God was listening to her, or even if there was a God. But she did not let her doubts lead her into faithlessness. Instead, she actively pursued the ministry of mercy to which God had called her, in the company of the faith community to which God had called her. And as she did so, she realized that she was encountering Christ, just as Thomas had. Her encounter was a bit different, though; she was encountering him as she ministered to "the least of these." God gave her the grace to see, in the face of the poor, Christ's face. God used her hunger for his light in the midst of her darkness, for his presence in the midst of her loneliness, to help her encounter him in her daily work with the poor.

I hope to have the occasion to share a little more of my own story soon. In the meanwhile, I encourage you to let God write yours, just as he wrote Thomas' and Mother Teresa's.

* Are you reading this, Guy Noir, Private Eye?