Saturday, 31 May 2008

Thinking about Thinking

I have entertained a growing fascination for the way we think about things and have long believed that many of our difficulties as Christians, indeed as a general humanity, in dealing with the world would be more manageable if we simply determined to think clearly and fearlessly about ourselves and the world around us. I suppose this is philosophy and certainly the shortest and most helpful definition I have found for that field of intellectual enquiry is that philosophy is “thinking about thinking”. Some see no practical use for philosophy but given this definition it would seem difficult to avoid it if we are going to make sense of anything. I knew one pastor who had only derisory things to say about philosophy but who used many recognisable philosophical concepts in his sermons to help people think through gospel principles without any idea that he was being philosophical.

Norman Cousins observed that “It is nonsense to say there is not enough time to be fully informed...Time given to thought is the greatest time saver”. Blaise Pascal famously observed, “Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed”. Yet it has also been observed that, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking” (Sir Joshua Reynolds). Yet, whatever the evidence to the contrary, Arthur Koestler’s pithy observation remains true, “We cannot unthink unless we are insane”.

Where people appear to be unthinking they are not altogether avoiding the thought process but simply lazy thinkers. They often allow the crowd to do their thinking for them and entertaining second-hand thoughts. This is illustrated by a conversation I had some years ago with a Christian friend. My wife’s mother had died and he asked me if she was a Christian. I told him that she was not but was a Spiritualist to which he replied, “Never mind. You will still get her under family salvation.” Of course, he was making reference to an event in the New Testament book of Acts in which the jailer of Paul and Silas asked, “Sir, what must I do to be saved?” Their reply was: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The implication in my friend’s remark was that, by believing, this jailer would save his whole family as though by proxy.

Being a new Christian I found this a novel and strange concept and I asked him what he meant and why he thought that way. He explained, “I don’t know. I once heard it said at a conference!” A thorough reading of the text and a moment’s careful thought will show that his idea of ‘family salvation’ is not theologically correct. Paul and Silas “Spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house...then immediately he and his family were baptised.” (VV 30-34) Clearly, the members of his ‘household’ had individual responsibilities to hear, believe and submit to the gospel.

What is puzzling is that so many of us have a propensity for repeating something we have heard as though speaking from personal understanding gained by careful study and consideration and as though citing an authority that is unimpeachable. This is especially frustrating when we do so in the name of God and represent our non-thinking as gospel truth.

In E M Forster's 'A Passage to India' Miss Adela Quested is newly arrived in the subcontinent and reflects on the social scene she finds among British ex-pats. Recently engaged she contemplates a vision of her prospective married life, with its endless round of predictable social engagements and imperialist traditions while 'the real India' appears 'always as a frieze, never as a spirit'.

"But the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand. Adela thought of the young men and women who had come out before her, P-and-O-full after P-and-O-full, and had set down to the same food and the same ideas, and been snubbed in the same good-humoured way until they kept to the accredited themes and began to snub others.’ I should never get like that,’ she thought, for she was young herself; all the same, she knew that she had come up against something that was both insidious and tough, and against which she needed allies."

As Christians we can, in the instinctive effort to be accepted in this strange new world of faith, find approval in keeping to the accredited themes of our group and, like Forster’s heroine, we need to determine, 'I should never get like that'. But the pull of unthinking and predictable acceptability is indeed both insidious and hard to resist and we need allies if we are to resist. In Christian circles the monster Forster describes can be identified in the same way he identifies it in the book - by attitudes of unthinking conformity.

“The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself” (Archibald MacLeish)

It should be encouraging for any Christian determined to avoid those accredited themes and dare dissent and think for themselves that the Bible says:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Ro.12:2)

Friday, 30 May 2008

Meeting your Maker

Dave Roberts is an Episcopalian priest ministering in Utah, USA and the co-founder of Intermountain Christian Ministries whose purpose is described on his web site:

Intermountain Christian Ministries (“ICM”) was founded in 1983 by Rev. Dave Roberts and Jeff Freeman in response to the call of the Lord Jesus Christ to establish a Christian mission in the Rocky Mountain West.

The Lord’s direction for ICM was, first, to be a clear, Christian presence in Utah and, second, to pray. Unlike other mission efforts based in Utah, ICM was not to target any specific group of people exclusively. As a result, through a network of varied opportunities, ICM has often ministered to a cross-section of the population, e.g., in the Cowboy & Rodeo circuit, to the Deaf community, among local African-American and Hispanic communities, the predominant Latter-day Saint (“Mormon”) population, as well as Slavic immigrants, Foreign and Domestic University students and, at times, some polygamous groups. ICM has also been supportive of persecuted Christian churches and Christians’ Rights groups in developing countries, people in religious transition out of aberrant groups as well as prisoners and parolees.

Dave has suffered for years with Atrial Fibrillation and recently underwent a heart procedure. His account of his experience is truly faith promoting, especially the rare opportunity he had to share his faith the night before the procedure. I will let him speak for himself.

I appreciate the prayer support more than you know. Atrial fibrillation, the way I would get it at least, is so debilitating and discouraging that there were times I would despair of life. I don’t mean that I was suicidal, but I couldn’t imagine going on for the rest of my life fighting with it and never being able to make plans or travel any distance. I’ve had it start up in the middle of weddings I was performing causing me to have to sit to finish the ceremony. Or not being able to wait in the grocery line or post office because everything started going black. I never knew from one part of the day to the other if I would be laid up for the next thirty hours, unable to get vertical, or having to check in to an emergency room somewhere to be cardioverted.

I never had to be cardioverted. (That’s where they knock you out and then put the paddles on your chest to jolt your heart into normal sinus rhythm electrically). For the nearly 70 times in 14 years I had had this, it would convert itself back within 30 hours but I could get no sleep during that time because of the explosions and violent shaking in my chest with a heart that was already exhausted and, I found out from my cardiologist, facing the danger of the heart just giving out if it didn’t cause a stroke first.

Lately it had been happening sometimes for one day out of three and it clearly was getting no better. The only thing standing between my going into another bout was the beta-blocker I was on called “Sotalol,” the maximum dosage allowable, and even that wasn’t 100% effective.

When I found a heart specialist who would do the procedure, Dr. Chun Hwang, at the Utah Valley Medical Center in Provo, Utah, about 35 miles south of my home, I discovered from his staff that he is one of the top three in the world for certain procedures. He went over the MRI results with me and seemed hopeful and said he’d be doing it 15 days later—May 21st.

Then two things happened that I attribute to peoples’ prayer:

1) For the next 13 days before the procedure, I had NO bout of atrial fibrillation, not even a hint of one. The heart was skipping a bit but no discomfort. It got to the point to where I wondered if maybe I didn’t need the procedure. (But when they went inside with their catheters, it was clear that I did).

2) When the nurse called the week before the procedure, she said “you are going to have to go off the beta-blocker and the Coumadin (anti-coagulant) for the three days before.” I told her that would send me into a-fib for sure, being without the beta-blocker, which was the only barrier between me and that severe arrhythmia starting up. She said that would probably happen but I was to “stick it out” until they got in there to operate because Dr. Hwang would need to see what was going on. To prevent the buildup of blood clots and a stroke during that time while I was waiting for the surgery, I would start injecting myself with Lovenox twice a day. I DREADED those three days: Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, May 18th, 19th and 20th, because I knew that I undoubtedly would go into a-fib and not come out of it; I could be in it for as much as 83 hours!

I went off the Sotalol and the Coumadin on Saturday midnight and waited. And waited. I waited all day Sunday and nothing happened! On Monday, at 3:17 a.m., I went into a-fib and realized it would be 56 hours until I went into the surgery– a long, miserable time to have trouble being vertical long enough to be able to heat something to eat or even to shower! This is where I believe your prayers came in again: After 10 hours and 30 minutes, my heart suddenly went into normal rhythm with nothing in my system to keep me from doing so and REMAINED in a regular rhythm until I went under the knife! I had no discomfort. The heart was functioning normally, although not perfectly.

Pastor Mike Menning came by to pick me up Wednesday morning, the 21st, and we got to Provo Hospital Admitting right on time at 11 a.m. I was on the operating table at 12:31 p.m. when they said they were going to put me to sleep and the next thing I knew, with no sense of passage of time, I awakened in my hospital room at 4:30 p.m. and could FEEL my heart beating perfectly! Mike had planned to wait around but the assistant surgeon came out to tell him that the procedure was taking longer than they had expected because they had encountered a lot more tissue that needed to be ablated on both sides of the heart. In short, there was no way this would have ever corrected itself and it makes me wonder what folks did not that many years ago when they had this. Mike left and came back to Salt Lake while I was still under and told me later what they had done because I remembered nothing and knew less!

In less than 23 hours, I was walking out the door of the hospital with Randy Lund, one of our ministers at Church of the Risen Christ, who has been through this procedure three times himself for the same thing. They finally got his heart into rhythm and it has stayed there for nearly two months now; his procedures were done at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake. We dropped off my prescriptions at the pharmacy, went for Mexican food at the Cancun, then he dropped me off at the house so I could grab my truck and head back over to the drugstore to pick up my new beta-blocker, plus a one-week steroid for inflammation and another drug to prevent acid reflux because the procedure is done so close to the esophagus. Within a few months I should be off everything associated with this including Coumadin. After picking up these drugs, I still went to Blockbuster, the post office, the bank and the supermarket before heading home. I might have been crazy seeing as I was out of the hospital only three hours before but I couldn’t believe how much better I was feeling. The only signs of what they did were three plugged punctures in the right jugular vein and both femoral arteries.

By Day Three, Saturday morning, I woke up and realized that my heart felt new – better than it had in the past 14 years! Even when it had been beating in rhythm between bouts of a-fib, it still wasn’t beating as well as it was now, even at 65 years old! I don’t know how much this whole thing will cost but the fact that I had it done two months after I went on Medicare plus a backup insurance with State Farm for everything Medicare doesn’t cover will make a difference.

Because of some scarring and the trauma the procedure was to the heart, I can still expect it to skip and jump a bit, like it did on Day Five. But overall, I’m doing great and I don’t think I would have been if it had not been for your intercession and God’s Favor.

Thanks to Him and to you. I hope this answers your questions and, if you know anyone who is facing this or living with the misery of severe tachycardia and arrhythmia who would want to talk with me about it, I’d be open to hearing from them. Hopefully I can encourage others as I have been encouraged beforehand by several who’ve been through this as well as supported in prayer by the rest.


Most of you know that I'm a pretty high-strung guy on occasion. Maybe it was another answer to your prayers that I was very calm about the whole heart procedure last week (a week ago today, in fact! Wow! That went quickly!)Anyway, I was so calm about it and that my heart was miraculously beating just fine the night before I was to go in that I decided I may as well go to my Water Aerobics Class at the gym and then still swim a half-mile afterward like I normally do.

This class is mostly middle-aged Mormons, maybe twelve women and five of us men. For months, most of the Mormons were polite but distant whenever I came into the class because of the paranoia the Mormon Church puts into them about evangelical Christians and the ever-present xenophobia about anyone who "is not a member" [of the Latter-day Saints -- "LDS" Church]. So for months it was just my giving a greeting and maybe getting a nod back but few words.As time went on and they realized that I wasn't Satan, more and more of them lightened up and now always greet me with "Hi Father Dave," when I get into the pool for the class.

Last Tuesday night, though, word had gotten around that I was facing this procedure the next day so all of them were wishing me "Good Luck." I know folks mean well when they say that but as a Christian I don't believe in luck. But I understand that this is just an expression. Only "Sid," who left Mormonism and became a Roman Catholic last year -- and I think had a genuine Christian conversion, said "I'll be praying for you, Father." And he did. (His wife is being pressured by the LDS Church to divorce him for his having left Mormonism. They have two small kids).

After the class, I thought I would be pushing it this close to the procedure to try to swim a half-mile so I decided to just sit on the edge of the Jacuzzi with the rest of the class who were winding down. Two or three of them then remarked, "Fr. Dave, you seem so calm about this whole heart problem. I'd be so nervous." I answered the whole group of them that I felt it was prayer support [yours] that was carrying me through it and, besides, if the worst possible thing happened, that I died, it's OK because I have the assurance and hope God gives that I'm ready to meet Him. Either way, it's a gain, a win." Some of them couldn't understand that but just politely nodded but one middle-aged LDS woman to my right mumbled under her breath, "I wish I could say that."

What is so sad is that Mormons die with no hope and no assurance that they've done enough good works to warrant God's salvation. One of the most depressing things a Christian in Utah can experience is a Mormon funeral because it is so empty. Not evil, just void of life and hope.THIS is why I'm in Utah. And if it took a heart problem for me to open up the subject of assurance for some of them, even one, then it will have been worth it. It could be a year later but I can guarantee that that one LDS woman who said that is thinking and will one day ask me or someone "to explain the Hope that is in us."

Dave Roberts.+

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Toronto II and the Third Wave

Todd Bentley is an extensively pierced and tattooed (God told him to do it) thirty-two-year-old Canadian evangelist who is leading the latest, third, wave of revival. His ministry is seen as part of an unfolding plan for the ‘last-days’. It seems that ‘God is doing a new thing’ all over again and we are all, once more, invited to be ‘in the blessing’. While many see nothing but blessing and God in this and similar moves and some others see wheat among the weeds, still others are deeply concerned and fear trouble ahead. There is a very good commentary on recent events on the Reachout Trust web site. This article addresses my own concerns about this latest so-called move of the Spirit.

I became a Christian, with my wife, in 1987 in a church that was very much at the centre of ‘New Church Revival’ thinking and was there for eleven years. Coming from a conservative background I found the worship, freedom of expression and sense of expectation in that church thrilling. We ‘Marched for Jesus’, learned the latest worship songs and expressed our faith with exuberance and it was an uplifting time.

These were people who, back in the late sixties and into the seventies, had come from a very conservative (largely Brethren) church background and had determined to experience the life they had been learning about, some of them since childhood, but that they didn’t see in the churches at that time. They found that life and what they found is what we came into all those years later and it was refreshing and good but...

I recall sitting in a church meeting and thinking that if the next person to stand up to speak says, ‘when I was in Toronto’, just as everyone had before them, I am leaving this church and not coming back. They did, I did and that was the end of that. It was all so mindless, meaningless and incredibly self-regarding. I didn’t even need to have the theology to explain why; it seemed so obvious to me that this was just silly. Where had it gone wrong?

Having left we moved back into more conservative churches and, while not as thrilling and exciting, found there a refreshing and nourishing diet of regular and in-depth Bible study. We also met many others either ‘retreating’ into traditional churches or altogether un-churched people licking their wounds from the disappointments of their Charismatic Church experience.

In light of this latest, Toronto II, phenomenon I have reflected on those days and thought that perhaps my frustrations are the polar opposite of those of my friends of that generation who so valiantly sought the life of the Spirit. Where a generation of Christians yearned for the experience of what they were studying in dry tomes I, and many like me, long for a sensible and biblical apologetic for the experiences urged on us now. There is an interesting passage in Stephen Mansfield’s biography of Derek Prince that goes some way to expressing how many see it:

“When a teacher like Derek surveyed the Charismatic scene in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was much to celebrate but also a good deal to prompt concern. Many Charismatics had overreacted to their former mainline churches and had discarded from their belief system anything that smacked of tradition, organization or the very idea of doctrine. What little systematic truth survived, often did so in horribly misshapen form...Doctrinal extremes, spiritual excesses and social chaos often prevailed” (Derek Prince, A Teacher for our Time, pub.DPM, 2005)

Of course, many others would see things differently; insist that God is doing wonderful and faith-inspiring things. But I find people exhausted and confused by all the trends, initiatives and programmes that seem to follow on from each other, each designed it seems to compensate for the shortcomings of those that have gone before and, of course, this time it’s the real thing to which all previous ‘moves’ were a precursor (and I have to say, in all-too-many case previous failings are blamed on the failure of Christians to be faithful to the vision). As someone involved in working with the cults and coming from that background I have to say that it is all so very familiar.

I don’t doubt that those New Church leaders achieved a great deal all those years ago but I observe that their generation (amongst whom I count many good friends) has produced in turn further generations that all-too-easily cast aside what they have for the next new thing as though there was no such thing as tried and tested ways. In this way what was seen as a necessity for that first generation has become customary for subsequent ones. Instead of change designed to get them to a better place with God it seems to be change in order to accommodate the latest thing. There is much talk of making the gospel ‘relevant’ but it seems to me that, in contextualising the gospel for this generation, we are decontextualising it from its moorings in history, in Scripture and in God.

This generation of leaders has become more interested in the success of the latest initiative than in the health of souls and guarding the deposit of faith. All-too-often church serves the programme rather than the other way around and those who question are regarded as spoiling it for everyone else - as though we were one homogenous whole whose needs are easily met with one size fits all solutions.

I have wondered, when I look at my ex-Brethren/New Church friends in leadership, what they see when they look out on the church they have created. I am aware that in many cases they see the outworking of what they learned in the Brethren and yearned to put into practice, concluding that much at least is well with the world. But they look through the lens of what they learned back then and there is the irony because, sadly, they are often passing on the experience without the theology that has served them so well. Where once we saw a generation of believers, soundly grounded in Scripture and determined to make real what they were reading, step out ‘in faith’ to make it real, now we see a generation of believers who, lacking that sound biblical base, go back into the Scripture to proof-text what they are experiencing and doing a pretty poor job of it.

I’ve no doubt that this is not everyone’s experience everywhere, or everyone’s interpretation of events, but it is a lot more than a local phenomenon and raises a lot of concerns for many people. There is a decided lack of discernment as the more bizarre factions of the church seem to be moving into and even becoming the mainstream and, because of the emphasis on experience and deemphasising of Scripture, this is ‘allowed’ if not condoned. I have struggled, as many do, with the imperfect nature of church with its denominations, streams and schisms and I have largely come to understand the nature of a ‘work in progress’. My church experience is reasonably broad and I do not regard myself a pedant nor do I insist upon some strict doctrinal interpretation for everything. On the contrary, I understand about weeds and wheat and have found this teaching refreshingly encouraging coming, as I do, from an impossibly strict and ultimately shallow cult background.

However, I am currently writing a series of short Bible studies following the letters to the churches in Asia Minor (Rev.1-3) and notable is the emphasis on discernment. The Church in Ephesus is commended for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans; believers in Smyrna warned against those who say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan; Pergamum commended for faithfulness but challenged for tolerating error and false teaching etc. I see a decided lack of such discernment, made an imperative in Scripture, operating today in the Charismatic church and, if any charge can be brought it’s the one brought against Pergamum, “You remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me...Nevertheless I have a few things against you: you have people there who hold to the teaching of...” You can put your own ‘Charismatic excess’ in here.

I suppose I feel it is the duty of those who led the charge to experimental Christianity all those years ago to warn clearly and soundly against the excesses and errors into which Charismaticism so easily falls. It is all well and good to speak of wheat and weeds and insist that revival is always messy but right now the church can’t see the wheat for the weeds and too many leaders are insisting that weeds are actually wheat if only everyone would just see it.

Meanwhile I am aware of a decline in ordinary pastoral care and a sense that if everyone could just have some experience or another then everything would be fine. Church becomes an event, like Pentecost, instead of the growing family of believers described in Acts 2:42-47 and Christianity a circus in which we are all performers instead of a community of saints. I heard someone just recently, someone who is meant to be at the centre of this latest ‘wave’, declare that he doesn’t go back into the world because it’s ‘boring’. Now I know we can all say silly things if we allow ourselves to get off the message but there was no ‘message’ as he led everyone to believe that God blessed people to keep them from being bored. The clear implication intended or not, is that if you are bored you are not right with God.

I am currently learning to not feel guilty because I live in a world where God is not constantly knocking at my heart, begging me to let him in – he is already ‘in’; continually performing wonders to convince me of something - I am so very convinced; shouting all day to get my attention – we are working on the paying attention thing together. At the same time I am praying that God will keep me open to those times when he does want to especially reveal himself and speak to my heart. I don’t want to be without him for a moment but neither do I wish to be so self-absorbed as to insist he reassures me with every step I take. Toddlers constantly seek the reassurance of mummy’s hand; when children grow we pray they will walk unaided according to the ways they have learned. I am learning that God does do new things but he also, and more usually, speaks in old ways, familiar ways and sometimes makes us stretch our faith muscles in walking apparently unaided. Yet he is not far from any of us and ‘knowing’ that and being content in it is true faith it seems to me.

Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age where Christians have Bibles for about every purpose except reading, see God’s purpose in the timing of a traffic light and can’t stand the idea that anything that happens in their lives could possibly be ordinary and circumstantial. We all seem to be craving significance and Christian celebrity and we have all seen enough of that to know it so often ends in tears. Many Christians I know seem to harbour a sneaking suspicion that they are missing out on something somewhere, if only they could get to where the blessing is, or get the right speaker to bring it to them. I am still in that place of wonder where I constantly marvel that “he died for me, he gave himself for me!” I ‘catch myself’ reading the Bible and that throws me into paroxysms of wonder as well. How did I ever get to that place where I read the Bible – and understand and love it!?

Some might say I am still in the foothills but I consider these rather precipitous heights and wonder if people have simply forgotten how to look and appreciate the considerable vistas of a grace that saves and keeps us. That said, I continue to climb, knowing there is more, the nature of which we can’t think or imagine at the moment. A pastor friend wrote of his own experiences when he shared with me his concerns about these latest developments:

“I know myself when I was into the whole subjective inner experience thing I felt sorry for those who were objective and sadly viewed them as less spiritual. My faith was more based on speaking in tongues than on Jesus;' because I could speak in tongues I was saved, because I felt a warm fuzzy I was saved. What was it that rescued me? A) Partly it was liberal theology. I knew liberal theology was wrong, and I needed to defend myself against it, so I decided to study the Reformation. "Sola Scriptura" was their battle cry and not I have had a warm feeling this morning in prayers.' B) This led me to conclude that every vision, picture, and message directly from the Lord, must be backed up from scripture.

As soon as I would get a picture from Jesus I ask for a scripture reference, if there was no reference to scripture then the picture was from my imagination. For the last seven years all pictures, visions, words of prophecy have stopped, as I had no scripture warranty to say such revelations. Everything began to be looked at through the lens of scripture. Because I once put such confidence in tongues I no longer speak in tongues. I am saved by the blessed trinity, and my prayer life improved as I learnt what it is to struggle in prayer and to pray with understanding.

Moving through the transaction of subjective to objective was hard, scary and threatening and often I wondered if God had left me as experiences stopped. But this is where faith in Jesus comes in; we walk by faith and not by sight. As Christians it is very hard to say we are wrong, especially in our walk with the Lord. It’s almost like we have the truth and therefore we cannot be wrong. My hardest obstacle was pride to overcome, because if I was wrong then Jesus was wrong. And being wrong made me mad. Returning to the Scriptures and faith in Jesus saved me from the new super spirituality.”

He doesn’t withdraw from spiritual experience. His testimony of his involvement in ministry in Africa is eloquent enough witness of his openness to spiritual gifting and God's immanence. Rather, he calls for a balance:

“I do think pastors and Christians need to look at the whole area of spiritual balance; balance between word and Spirit, discipline and freedom, Zeal and wisdom, spiritual warfare and rest, etc. We are prone to extremes because of our sinful nature if we are to be mature Christians we must have spiritual balance to become mature in Christ. If we move into spiritual balance and maturity much of the rubbish we see I think would disappear.”

The current secular understanding of faith is that it is something that is fed by ignorance and held to against the evidence and it is this understanding that is all-too-often being reinforced by revivalist preachers. However, saving faith and keeping faith are consistent with knowledge and a clear understanding of ideas. Indeed, faith can be defined in three steps; intellectual understanding, emotional approval and personal decision. Christians are not asked to emotionally and personally commit to a message that is intellectually inadequate and, contrary to popular lore, the Bible makes frequent appeals to our intellectual processes and to evidences and ideas that challenge our thinking.

Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Ro.10:17). The call to faith, the message, is based on real events, evidenced by historical verities and eye-witness reports. Paul wrote to the Galatians, who had strayed from the pure message he had preached, “Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Christ was portrayed as crucified” (Gal.3:1). There was an empty tomb, living witnesses, names, dates, places, and an historical and Scriptural provenance all of which could be known intellectually. That word ‘bewitched’ is, I think, telling.

Of course, facts and ideas alone do not make saving faith. Even the demons have a firm grasp of the facts and a very good idea of God (James 2:19). These are attested to by creation; by God’s acting in history in choosing a people for himself, giving the law and then fulfilling it in Christ; by the life, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His Son; by the establishment of his church on the testimony of living witnesses and in the work of the Holy Spirit; all these together challenge us to give emotional consent to the truth. This realisation of the truth, in turn, challenges us to make a personal commitment. Of course truth is revealed to the heart by the Spirit, but it is the intellect that conveys to the heart the facts and ideas to which the Spirit testifies. If there are no facts and ideas there is nothing to know and think about, and nothing to which we can reasonably commit ourselves. “That felt good” is not a sufficiently compelling reason for life-changing decisions.

It might be argued that conversion and subsequent Christian experience is seldom so neat a process, personal commitment following on from emotional approval based on intellectual understanding. However, whether ours is a crisis experience or a process nevertheless intellectual content is always a substantial part of conversion and, I would argue, of subsequent Christian living. Many come to faith out of an instinctive realisation of a need for and a seeking after God. They experience a call to follow only afterwards seeking intellectual order to what they have come to believe. Nevertheless, the Bible still challenges us to deal with known facts and intellectually established truth.

Many Christians today consider it a virtue to believe in the absence of intellectual content and ask people to give emotional consent to what cannot be intellectually verified, indeed is intellectually implausible, and to make a personal commitment on the basis of emotional subjectivity based on ‘experiences’. This kind of non-thinking leads to a form of Gnosticism where the claims of ‘prophets’ are rendered invulnerable to criticism from outside by the fact that the prophet has had certain experiences and impressions.

In an essay entitled Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage? (In “The Wages of Spin”, pub. Mentor, 2004) Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, makes an impassioned appeal to the church and the Christian academy to understand and complement each other’s work, lamenting the fact that too many believers put knowledge and experience in opposition to one another. Our faith has a basis in the real world around us, can stand close intellectual scrutiny, and is intellectually compelling as well as spiritually challenging. That cannot be said of much of modern charismatic experience and some Christians are, not unreasonably, asking, “What should I ‘think’ about this" while many revivalist leaders insist that the experience should be sufficient.

Of course, this all sounds rather virtuous, giving yourself over to whatever God has for you and receiving spiritual impressions, with your hands outstretched and your face to heaven. Those who question this idea are often challenged with irrational questions like, “Don’t you believe God can heal you/speak to you/do something new?” To which, of course, the answer is yes, he can, but that is not the point at all and these weasel words don't help. The question we should be addressing is, “Does God work in this way?” The Berean spirit (Acts 17) tells us that we are not to be satisfied with having a good impression of either the message or the messenger. No less an authority than the apostle Paul was put to intellectually rigorous testing by the Bereans “to see if what Paul said was true” and they were commended for it!

All this leaves us facing the real danger of retreating to those pre-New Church days when, apparently, no one sought or expected God to be immediately present by his Spirit, everything done strictly ‘by the book’. God forbid! However, neither should we be so complacent as to give untried and untested spirits place in our churches just because someone claims to have experienced a journey to the Third Heaven, been to the mountain top or demonstrated some fancy spiritual footwork. Of all the gifts celebrated in today’s evangelical charismatic churches, discernment is the one most urgently needed now; for our sake and for future generations.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Galileo, Darwin and the Law of the Medes and Persians

When Galileo presented the inconvenient truth that the Sun did not orbit the Earth the people for whom it was most inconvenient was not the Pope and his cardinals but the scientific community. For some two thousand years the Aristotelian view that the Sun orbited the earth had prevailed, was the received wisdom of scientists everywhere and was not seriously challenged except by the odd nutcase who received short shrift from those who knew what they were talking about.

However, Galileo was not the first serious scientist to make the claim. Copernicus had already discovered the truth but, for fear of ridicule by other scientists and the possible ruin of his reputation he had his work published posthumously. Galileo was not so coy, indeed he was rather loud, abrasive and temperamental, as is the way with those who work on the edges of knowledge. It's so frustrating waiting for everyone else to catch up!

The story is popularly told in terms of science verses faith but this is not quite true. The church never was and still isn't as anti-science as people like to believe and, as in all ages of the world, scientists were as subject to dogmas and prejudices as anyone. Galileo was throwing over the received wisdom of the scientific world and the church was cautiously interested while the scientific community was positively hostile and reactionary. It was the scientific community that eventually persuaded a reluctant Rome to get involved in the controversy.

Of course Rome was cautious and questioning about scientific progress and its implications. There are often spiritual and theological implications to scientific discoveries and experimentation; witness today's hot topics of embryology, saviour siblings, IVF treatment and fatherless families, not to mention larger issues such as climate change. Contrary to popular myth, however, the received wisdom of the day was not that the earth was at the centre of Creation with science daring to question its elevated position and that of the church, but at the bottom of Creation, reflecting the biblical view of its fallen nature. Galileo was not demoting the earth but elevating it above its true and fallen station in the order of things. In today's sceptical, cynical and decidedly two-dimensional world this may seem trivial but people's world-view can't be simply overturned based on new and untried science and people trusted the church for guidance in these things. It's not just religion that shouldn't mess with people's heads.

No one comes out of this story covered in glory. Science showed itself as capable of prejudice and stubborn dogmatism as anyone as it silenced Copernicus and bullied the church into getting more involved than it really wanted to be. Galileo was an irascible and bad-tempered man who would never have won friends and influenced people. But he had often discussed his theories with his friend Pope Urban VIII, who was cautiously interested and encouraging, asking Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in a book, but cautioning him to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism because that theory had no decisive proof and was contrary to the literal meaning of Scripture. Hard to imagine these days but Galileo's claims were still considered no more than a hypothesis even by the scientific community.

Unfortunately, when he finally presented his theories to the world in the form of a classic Greek dialogue he advocated his theories as fact and, to add insult to injury, he put the Aristotelian view including the ideas of his friend the Pope in the mouth of an incompetent adversary he named Simplicius. Thus he lost the support of a strong and powerful advocate and supporter.

The church finally lost patience and overreacted, taking an entrenched position and reinforcing a not altogether deserved reputation for being anti-science and imperious in its attitude, keeping his books on the index of prohibited books until 1835. In 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, spoke about Galileo in Rome and observed, "The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's teaching too."

"The Law of the Medes and Persians" is a reference to a verse of the Bible and is a term used to describe that which is unalterable:

"Now, O King, establish the decree, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not" (Daniel 6:8)

It is easy to see how things can seem unalterable, either because the powers that be, like the scientific community or the state, seem to be beyond challenging or because everyone 'just knows' the truth and any alternative to the received wisdom is unthinkable. For many Christians, today's geocentrism is Darwin's theory of evolution and it seems that, despite its failings, gaps and missing links, it is beyond challenging. History teaches us otherwise but we must be careful to learn the lessons of history.

It was science that stood in the way of progress but it was also science that made that progress and we mustn't dismiss her findings because they don't suit our preconceptions otherwise we will fall into the same trap as Galileo's scientific contemporaries.

The church was much more involved in encouraging that progress than popular perception will allow but in doing so it did try to exercise reason and counsel caution. We too must be careful not to present what we believe as scientific or our pet theories as proven facts. We must also not overreact to what science seems to tell us because she is a good servant and we don't always give her the credit she is due. We should remember this when next we board a plane, take a painkiller or even now as we read this off a computer screen. We should work with her, always seeking to remain faithful to the God whose thoughts, Einstein once said, science is thinking after him.

We should never say never for where is the Law of the Medes and Persians today? Where is Aristotle's geocentrism? The truth is only God is unchangeable and even our understanding of God is subject to revision as we grow in our knowledge of him and his creation. Darwinism is still a minority view in the world and evolution is a hypothesis that is still being tested, revised and reviewed. The last thing needed is a stubborn scientific community that will not allow for the possibilities of alternatives as this process goes on, or a church that is backed into a dogmatic ghetto and has nothing positively scientific to contribute to the debate. There needs to be humility on all sides because history teaches us that, in the rush to progress, we can all be wrong yet still capable of finding and appreciating the truth eventually.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Critics of the Mormon Church constantly bring the charge that Mormonism evolves and changes while Mormons insist that their faith is constant and unchangeable in all its essentials. Nothing is more essential, fundamental in Mormonism as the Mormon temple ceremonies, which are considered sacred and unchangeable by the Mormon faithful.

If anyone has ever doubted the Promethean nature of the Mormon Church this is proof positive that in its very fundamentals Mormonism is as changeable as the wind, suiting itself to the sensibilities of each generation and reinventing itself so as to match the spirit of every age.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Evangelical/Mormon Dialogue

Bob Millet is a professor of ancient scripture and emeritus Dean of Religious Education at the Mormon Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is especially known to us as a distinguished Latter-day Saint author, speaker and apologist whose prolific work includes more than 60 published works on virtually all aspects of Mormonism. He appears frequently in the media as Manager of Outreach and Interfaith Relations for Church Public Affairs. In these efforts at interfaith he is especially successful in selling Mormonism as a Christian church and in promoting dialogue with Evangelicals.

In an April 2008 email to Mormons working on interfaith initiatives with Evangelicals he wrote about the highs and lows of such dialogue, observing:

Its hard work
Its about understanding, not converting people
Trust and respect are paramount
People who disagree with you are not necessarily anti-Mormons
LDS leaders are getting involved
Attack/defence discussion is not good
Gordon B Hinckley set a good example of how this kind of dialogue can help bring the Mormon Church out of obscurity

Note the last item, i.e. the aim of bringing the church out of obscurity. It makes sense, of course, otherwise why would they want to have anything to do with apostate Christendom? Yes, this is all very chummy and I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade – but:

Mormonism teaches that all other churches are apostate, that Mormonism represents a restoration of sound Christian truth and alone has the authority to speak for God. The mandate for Mormons is to convert everyone else to their faith, either in this life or the next (this last in itself an unbiblical teaching). Truly, the rest of us are not “those other Christians” as is so fondly believed by some involved in this deceptive initiative, but those apostates who teach and profess “creeds that are abominable to God” (JSH 1:19). We, like the pitiful preacher in the service of Satan once portrayed on the temple film, teach things that are muddled and incomprehensible and need to turn from our futile and apostate ways and believe Mormonism. If Mormonism was true, frankly, I would be glad to hear such a message and be saved from my folly!

Christians, on the other hand, are warned frequently in Scripture to beware of, avoid, give warnings about and guard against “different gospels” (Galatians 1:6/9, c.f.) Just as Mormonism teaches that ours is an apostate and corrupted gospel, with no authority and abominable to God, so Christians regard Mormonism as no gospel at all because it is “a different gospel to the one we received”. It is our mandate to witness to those involved in the counterfeit religion of Mormonism and bring them to know the true gospel as preached by Paul to the Galatians. If Mormonism is not true then we cheat Mormons of an eternal inheritance by seeking dialogue of this kind instead of witnessing.

Mormons like to refer to us as “traditional Christians” but this, too, is misleading. We are not “traditional Christians” but Christians. Differentiating between Mormons and “traditional Christians” is itself a deception, leading people to think that there are two types of Christians, i.e. Mormons and “traditional Christians”. Christians who subscribe to this idea are lending their weight to this deception. Mormons are not Christians, only Christians are Christians.

Mormons are not Mormons in the same way that Baptists are Baptists, Methodists are Methodists or Pentecostals are Pentecostals. They are not a denomination and there are not merely denominational differences between them and Christianity. They are different from Christianity on every fundamental of the faith, i.e. the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, the purpose of God in Creation, the nature and Fall of Man, the nature of sin, the work of the Cross, the means of redemption, the fate of man - as well as the Bible which teaches us about these. In all this they challenge and reject Christian teaching.

It is hard to see what constructive purpose such dialogue as is being celebrated here can serve if we fail to recognise these things. Of course, on a personal level we must have dialogue if we are to get on with our Mormon neighbours and if we are to share the gospel with them. However, we must avoid giving the impression that because we can get along we can somehow find common ground of any sort, not least because that is not the agenda of Mormonism, no matter how they might protest otherwise. They wish to come out of obscurity not join with the faithful in Christ.

Gordon B Hinckley is cited as an example of one who sought dialogue with Evangelicals. He is famously quoted as saying that Mormonism doesn’t tear down other religions (a palpable untruth) and of offering all to come “bring what you have and see if we can add to it”. That, itself, should sound alarm bells for Bible-believing Christians. Nothing can be added to the finished work of Christ on the Cross and his continuing presence in his church. He is also famous for peddling the message that Mormonism, “seeks to make bad men good and good men better”. The gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to make dead men live! How on earth can this message of Mormonism add to that?

By all means let us work together with all kinds of people of all creeds and nationalities for the common good. There is much that can be gained from being co-workers in a common civic cause, co-belligerents in a war against injustice. But we must beware of any efforts at being co-religionists with those who preach another gospel. Christians must remember what God had to say to the Churches in Pergamum (Rev.2:14-16) and Thyatira (Rev.2:20-25). We need to be reminded of his words of commendation to those who “do not hold to Satan’s so-called deep secrets”; warnings to those who “pretend to be [believers] but are not” (3:9); encouragement to believers to “hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (3:11) and especially his warnings to those who are “neither cold nor hot” (3:14/15). These last, I suspect, are the ones who will rub along with any fellow-traveller prepared to keep them company on the road and these we must avoid the most because they present the greatest danger to Christians with their message of “peace, peace”.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Case of the mysteriouslyi migrating evidence - CARM.ORG - Christian Discussion Forums

A very good and very entertaining commentary on the continuing  saga of Mormonism's claims for archaeology and the BOM. It is a reminder that sometimes a tone of voice is needed to remind Mormons of their true place in the world.

Case of the mysteriouslyi migrating evidence - CARM.ORG - Christian Discussion Forums