Christian Life

The Trinity and Us

Now that I have written five thousand words about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?”  Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not.  But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration?  Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice?  Does this Trinitarian theology matter?

I think it does matter, and it matters a lot.  Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine.  But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)

Partisanship vs. Factionalism

Now is a good time to pray for America.  I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now.  In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals.  Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism.  In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.

Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire.  The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended).  The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine.  Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner.  But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state.  And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war.  If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism. (more…)

Judging Christians

Judgmentalism is unattractive in modern, liberal, western culture.  After the accusation that all Christians are hypocritical, the notion that Christians are judgmental (and its frequent companion, closed-minded) is one of the reasons I have most frequently heard for why non-Christians have no interest in Christianity.  Some of the cleverer non-Christians, and many of the more liberal Christians, have even learned to cite Jesus himself, who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  So judging is always wrong, right?

The issue of Christians exercising judgment is not so simple.  While the criticism that (most) Christians are too judgmental has merit, I think it is rather that Christians sin by judging in the wrong direction.  Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  Not only does Jesus command not to judge, he also commands Christians to exercise judgment correctly.  Hateful judgmentalism makes obvious a lack of love, but what judgment’s “cultured despisers” often fail to realize is that refusal to condemn sin can itself be a failure to love fully.  But what does it mean to judge “correctly”? (more…)

Sins Big and Small?

One of the issues on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have often chosen to disagree is whether there are gradations in sin.  As Holy Saturday comes to a close, and as we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection tomorrow, I thought this subject might be worth a few words.  In short, I think both are right, as long as not overstated. (more…)

Worshiping the Unseen

My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.”  But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships?  In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object.  But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship?  The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping.  And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient.  When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them.  The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.”  This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)

What is Worship?

My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious.  These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen.  I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings.  Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question.  I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith. (more…)

The Cost of Doing Wrong

It seems that many people have a vested interest in publicly proclaiming that there is no such thing as right and wrong.  Some of them even anticipate making profits out of advertising aimed to convince an audience that doing wrong is fun or in some other way inherently rewarding.  Yet even if morality is a merely human invention (a viewpoint I do not hold), so is language.  So are computers.  That does not make them any less real.  I have been struck recently by noticing the very real cost – in terms of money, time, quality of life, and general happiness – of doing wrong. (more…)

Judaism and Christianity: Together Again at Long Last?

Earlier this month a collection of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis published a manifesto of sorts “toward a partnership between Jews and Christians,” as the document’s subtitle states, on the website of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation.  In doing so they were, they say, “accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters.”

Now I’m all in favor increased mutual understanding, and indeed of partnership toward shared goals, such as peace.  But I found the document disheartening, and in one place misleading.  I thought I would discuss it here, and through it, how Christians might best serve their Jewish neighbors in Christ-like love. (more…)

Peter’s Amicus Brief

In a local Bible study group, we just read 1 Peter, and this time through I was struck by how consistently the theme of judicial persecution of Christians remains near at hand through the whole letter.  Indeed, seeing more of the letter in light of this consistent theme forced me to revise my understanding of several passages.  These re-assessed verses include every reference to suffering in the letter, as well as two very famous verses, the one most often cited by Evangelicals as the clarion call for apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) and the one warning about the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8).  I thought I’d chart here some of this new (to me) reading of Peter’s letter in light of persecution. (more…)

Learning from (Religious) Experience?

The philosophy professor whom I mentioned in my last post made a fascinating argument against using religious experiences to draw theological conclusions.  I partly agree with it, and partly disagree with it, so I thought I would post it here and take it apart.

His basic argument was that people of many logically incompatible religions have strong religious experiences, on the basis of which they conclude that their respective religions are correct.  But since they cannot all be correct (since they contradict each other), religious experience seems not to be a reliable method for inferring which is the true religion.  Instead, he suggested, people who grow up in a religion typically develop positive emotions for the places, people, and objects associated with that religion, and these emotions then lead to experiences of God’s love, for example, or of the truthfulness of one’s own religion, experiences which may reflect nothing more than a lifetime of developing positive associations.

He described a discussion he had with two Mormons, in which he invited them to make the case for why he should come to believe in Mormonism.  With a caveat that it might sound crazy, they described the burning in their bosom which confirmed to them that the Book of Mormon was true.  The philosopher, far from being surprised, expressed that these sorts of experiences are exactly what he would expect for someone in their positions.  Instead, and I’m sure much to the consternation of this pair of Mormon missionaries, he denied that such an experience lends support to the truth of their religion.  People of other religions equally experience feelings which in their view confirm their beliefs, and those experiences are neither more nor less genuine, and neither more nor less confirmatory, than the burning in the bosom of the Mormons. (more…)