Exhortations

The Forgotten Art of Civil Discourse

I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing.  The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner.  Civility seems to be nearly extinct.  If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly. (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…)

Of Politics and Peacemaking

I do not often write on politics, for a few reasons.  Devout Christians come to different political views (which are usually matters of wisdom rather than doctrine, anyway).  I think faith in Christ is more important than any particular political stance, and I do not want any political disagreement to overshadow more important issues about what Christianity teaches.  Furthermore, I know American politics best, but Christianity is global, so discussing American politics reduces what I might say to my fellow Christians around the world.  (That all sounds very spiritual, but I also simply do not find politics interesting, most of the time.)

This US presidential election cycle, however, is surprisingly ugly, and I am not talking about the candidates’ appearances.  What are Christians to think and do about it? (more…)

The Spiritual Danger of Graduate School

There is a danger in pursuing the highest levels of education.

It is not, as a few antagonistic atheists suppose, that doing so will teach you to think, and that thought is incompatible with faith.  In point of fact, some of the brightest people throughout European and American history, even recently, have been Christians.  Some of them have even become Christians, not simply grown up with it.  (Indeed, I wish more people, both Christians and others, would learn to think better.)

Nor is the danger, as some Christians suppose, that all Christians pursuing graduate education will be brain-washed by professors who are antagonistic atheists out to destroy their students’ faith.  No doubt there are such professors, but graduate students are supposed to think critically about what they hear from all sources, and many advisers give their students a fair degree of latitude to disagree with them (in certain areas).  Historically, Christians have learned a lot from studying with non-Christians, such as the fourth-century author John Chrysostom from the pagan Libanius.  And of course, Christians worried about such brain-washing can pursue graduate study at confessional Christian schools.  While I have known people who have left Christianity while pursuing graduate degrees, I have also known Christians whose faith grew and flourished even in very secular environments.

Nor is the danger that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33, quoting the pagan poet Menander).  While this is certainly true, in general academics are no more immoral than can be found in any bar, coffee-house, movie theater, sports stadium, large corporation, or other place where people gather.  The apostle Paul made clear that Christians were not to shun the presence of all non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

The danger of pursuing a Ph.D. or similar terminal degree is simply, in the words of the apostle Paul, that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). (more…)

“Fear not!”

(I haven’t written for a few weeks, partly because of starting my new job, and partly because the situation in northern Iraq was driving me to write in other venues…)

I did not grow up in a church, and so I am always a little curious what going to church is like for children.  I particularly appreciate this gem, from a puppet re-telling of the Christmas story in Luke 2:

  • Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
  • Angel: Fear not!
  • Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
  • Angel: What part of “fear not” didn’t you understand?
  • Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
  • Angel: Never mind.  I bring you good news…

It always strikes me how fearful many Christians remain, even though Christ has already given us all that we need for godly lives.  To hear some Christians talk (or blog), they are afraid of Islam, atheism, homosexuality, church shrinkage, cultural de-Christianization, loss of constitutional rights, President Obama, censorship, contraception, courts, and the news media.  This is clearly a very heterogeneous bucket o’ fear. (more…)

“Choose Life”

At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”  The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.

This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes.  The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly.  The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced.  People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain.  It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it.  Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for.  No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.

And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey.  And in that sense, he chose his own death.  Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not.  (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.)  He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.

Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life.  As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Why does this matter?  Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?

I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart.  She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number.  We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday.  I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years.  I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I don’t know what she had been going through.

Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death.  In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord.  We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters.  After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times.  I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.

In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways.  I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share?  What if I had been a more consistent pen pal?  Could I have done anything?  Might it have mattered?  And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.

But I have no use for wishful thinking.  Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture.  He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence.  We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary.  The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts.  These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.

So let us not fool around with trivialities.  Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”