prayer

What Do You Do With Faith vs. Facts?

I was just asked how I respond when my religious beliefs conflict with what I believe on the basis of other sources of information.  I think this is a common experience (certainly common for me), and that many people wrestle with it in different ways.  My short answer is that I do what I do whenever any two beliefs of mine conflict.  But that answer itself presumes certain views regarding the nature of religious beliefs and knowledge, and there are perhaps some slight differences worth exploring.  Here are a few thoughts about how I approach the issue, and ways I think are dead ends. (more…)

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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…)

Is Prayer a Conversation?

Christians struggle how to understand prayer.  Many people think of prayer as a token to the great vending machine in the sky, which is clearly wrong.  Some people think of prayer as a particularly holy work for those who can muster enough faith for it.  People present God with lists of requests, sometimes demands, or try to bargain with God, while others insist that prayer for physical things is (not only ineffective but also) merely selfish, so they upholster their prayers in pious verbiage to protect it from encountering anything hard (or real).  Some people say prayer is a conversation between a Christian and God, but the obvious objection is that unlike in human conversations, (most) Christians don’t hear audible responses to their prayers.  Some Christians create a model of “holy” conversation by pointing to God’s revelation (Scripture and creation) for God’s part of the dialogue, while others just think prayer is too one-sided to be a conversation at all.  Is prayer a conversation? (more…)

David’s Unanswered Prayer at the Disjuncture of Faith and Feeling

The Bible does not often report unanswered prayer; when it does, we should pay close attention.  One such instance occurs in an unlikely place: the fallout of the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah.  In this story (2 Samuel 12), David is no hero, but a villain, and when he was rebuked by Nathan, the prophet tricked him into condemning his own actions.  Only then did he repent, and even so the Lord condemned the child to be born, for Bathsheba had become pregnant with David’s son, to death.  David then lay in sackcloth for seven days, fasting and praying for the child to be spared, and yet at the end of the week the baby died.  To the bewilderment of his servants, David then got up, cleaned himself off, stopped fasting, and worshiped the Lord.  Even though this awful situation was the result of David’s own sin, the divergence between David’s actions and his servants’ expectations, a disjuncture occasioned by unanswered prayer, spotlights the difference between faith and feeling in Christianity.

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Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end. (more…)

Repaying Evil with Good

The news coming out of Mosul regarding the expulsion of religious minorities is pretty awful, and we should pray for the Iraqis, but I also wanted to share a link to a Lebanese Christian’s response to the situation, which, if it is not simply posturing, is a clear example of blessing those who curse you.  It is an open letter from Levant Party President Rodrigue Khoury to the self-appointed “Caliph Ibrahim Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” of ISIS, and it begins: (more…)

Hoc Est Corpus Meum

In honor of yesterday’s feast of Corpus Christi, in some Latin liturgical calendars, here is a narration of my experience leading up to my first communion.  I remember how I described those events at the time, without Christian jargon which was then unfamiliar to me, because of the impression they made on me, both because of their force and because of how unexpected they were.

When I decided to become a Christian, I started visiting churches on Sunday mornings, and in the course of four weeks I visited three churches, one a Calvary Chapel and the other two both Presbyterian churches.  I think none of these churches offered communion more than once per month, but in four consecutive weeks I was offered communion three times. (more…)

Church Shopping: A Discourse on Method

Since I argued in a previous post that “church shopping” is not necessarily evil, and is perhaps necessary, the next question becomes how to do it.  I see several options, most of which I have tried or heard reports from numerous other people who have tried.  This post is less of an argument regarding rights and wrongs than a clearinghouse of pros and cons. (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

Church Shopping

Tomorrow I should have regular wireless again, but I found a way to wish you all a happy Pentecost!  Among the “joys” of moving, I strongly dislike “church shopping,” the process of bouncing from one church to another looking for “the church for me.”  It always feels too self-centered.  I don’t want a church to be “for me”; I want it to be “for Jesus”!

But the reality is that when one moves a long distance, one must find a new congregation to worship with.  In the US, at least, this typically involves a fair amount of individual choice, as there are several churches which may be acceptable.  (This is not just a Protestant thing; I’ve watched traditional as well as liberal Roman Catholics pick their parish based on the theology of the local priest, and the competing jurisdictions of Chalcedonian Orthodox churches has given various American Orthodox friends of mine the freedom to prefer one congregation over another.)  How does one exercise this individual choice without elevating one’s personal preferences over Christ’s purposes for his Church, thus setting oneself in judgment over the people of God?  (“And who are you to judge the servant of another?” wrote Paul in Romans 14.)  If individual choice on this matter is inevitable, can it avoid being evil?

It can, I think, when exercised with the right goal.  The goal of finding a new church is not picking a congregation who is like me, or who will like me, or whose theology/worship style/dress code/architecture I find appealing or comfortable.  Those matters are not irrelevant, but they are also not the goal.  The goal is to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of his body, the Church.  The other body parts go where the head tells them to.  If I move from one region to another, I am moving from one part of Christ’s body to another, and my job is to figure out where my Lord would have me serve, as part of his body in this new location.  Choosing a church as part of a move is not the same as picking a new phone company or a new internet service.  Instead, it is a matter of discerning my Master’s wishes and fulfilling them.  There are big questions about how to discern God’s will, but prayer is a necessary starting place, and looking for where one is called to serve Christ will raise different questions than judging whether this congregation is comfortable or appealing.

This doesn’t make it easy to find a congregation in a new location.  (Or at least, not usually.)  But it can make it less prideful and self-serving, and therefore not necessarily evil.