Monthly Archives: June 2015

Welcoming the rationalist

I have invited Malibu Bob from christiannews.net to join us here. Among his posts Bob said the following:

Christianity is so unbelievable and so contrary to everyday observation on its surface, that the only way in which people can maintain such an untenable set of beliefs is by constant reinforcement.

That’s a pretty big challenge and one that I feel would be better addressed by breaking it into it a set of questions that can be approached more succinctly. So here’s how I think it should go. Bob may feel differently.

  1. The supernatural: Is there a “reality” not readily accessible to human perception? Or at the very least, is it even possible to prove that one way or the other?
  2. If such a thing may exist, then does God exist or is it even possible to prove that as well?
  3. If God exists, what is his/her/its relationship to the natural world and to us human beings?
  4. What is the nature of man and how does it relate to God’s nature?
  5. If man is imperfect, in what ways have we sought to achieve perfection?
  6. Finally, if God exists and it is not in our power to achieve perfection, what means have we been given to do so?

So to kick things off, let’s talk about that which is contrary to everyday observation, namely question one. What does Bob have to say about the possibility of the supernatural?

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Did Jesus lie about the age of the universe?

My friend from christiannews.net, Reason2012, crafted a very thorough and carefully reasoned response to one of my posts. Much of it concerns what Jesus Himself believed about Creation since, as the Bible clearly states, He was present at the creation of the world. And he makes a very valid point that we shouldn’t distort Scripture because it makes us uncomfortable by not comporting with our scientific point of view. Given the absolute sovereignty of God, there is every reason to assume that He may create His universe in whatever form He pleases and I can’t refute that. Omnipotence pretty much trumps everything.

However, I want to lay out some additional thoughts in relation to his response that clarifies my point of view. He begins by quoting part of my response.

“And what we know for certain about light makes it impossible for the universe to be much less than 13 BILLION years old.”
No, all we “know” on this topic are assumptions
– we ASSUME light traveled the same speed since light first existed
– we ASSUME God cannot change that speed
– we ASSUME God cannot create other things, heavenly bodies, in mature form where we assume they went through other processes before their current state when God could have easily created them in mature form skipping previous ‘states’ as well.

Following that logic, it would also be possible to say that God created the entire universe ten seconds ago with you having a memory of your entire life even though it didn’t “really” happen. That is PROBABLY absurd. (And not exactly Scriptural) But it leaves us with a quandary.

We know from Scripture that God’s nature is clearly evident in His creation.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. – Romans 1:20 NIV [emphasis mine]

The crux of the problem is this: when what we can “clearly see” does not jibe with what we understand from God’s Word, it seems as if we have to make a choice. Do we believe the Bible or do we believe the evidence of our senses (science)? Since both reflect the truth of God’s nature they can’t disagree. Do we distort the Word to make it conform to science, or do we distort science to make it conform to the Word? Or is it possible that we can believe that both are true but the reconciliation of the two exceeds our present understanding?

Before I delve into this, let’s first consider for a moment language in the context of culture. As I mentioned before, I was at one time an anthropology major concentrating in linguistics. The study of contemporary cultures from a socio-linguistic context shows that language and culture are so inextricably intertwined that it may be said that they are each an expression of the same thing. And language operates at multiple levels. At the lowest levels, it exists as unarticulated concepts. The process of translating from one language to another is, at its root, the reduction of one language to its conceptual level and the re-articulation of these concepts back into the target language. And since language and culture are so intertwined, a culture that lacks a particular concept will not have the means of expressing it. We see this in modern day translation when one language “borrows” from another because it is better expressed that way. For example, there is a word in German, schadenfreude that expresses the idea of deriving  pleasure from another’s misfortune. There is no succinct way of expressing that concept in English so it was borrowed and is now a legitimate English word.There are many words borrowed from English that appear in other languages albeit in their phonology. For example, the word “steak” (or beef steak) appears in French as biftec, in Spanish as bistec, in Japanese as suteki.

In observing language development in children, we see that their use of language reflects their level of conceptual ability. If a five-year-old asks his father “what makes the car go,” he will probably be able to grasp the concept that the big thing under the hood “eats” gas and pushes the car. Dad will probably not get into the details of the internal combustion engine. And it is much the same with cultures. Human beings can only understand language in the context of their existing categories. And while they are certainly capable of learning new concepts, attempting to convey information information radically beyond their understanding is not likely to be fruitful.

So now let us now consider the Holy Spirit inspiring the writer of Genesis. There’s a pretty good chance that the Biblical story of creation existed in oral form long before it was written down, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Moses sat down with pen and papyrus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit began to recount the story of creation.  Keep in mind that this is God the Holy Spirit who knows all of nature down to the tiniest details. And again for the sake of argument, let us assume that the universe was created 13 billion years ago, that the stars are distributed in three-dimensional space and not attached to the inside of a solid sphere (or “firmament”), and that the Earth is not its center, that matter is not composed of uniform substances but is composed of indescribably tiny particles. How could this information be conveyed in a true sense but still be comprehensible to Moses? In my opinion it was God’s intended purpose to convey the parts of the message that were essential for the spiritual life of the Jews in categories that were comprehensible in their culture. Did God lie? Is the withholding of unnecessary details dishonest or is it expedient?

So when Jesus spoke to His disciples, he spoke to them as the first-century Palestinians they were. Did he lie because He omitted the details of the Higgs boson? He had a very few years in which to convey the vitally important details of God’s plan of salvation. (Even then they didn’t understand Him a lot of the time). So he used terms with which they were already familiar. In their minds the world was the center of the universe and was recent in origin. Would it have served any purpose for Him to expound on the fact that when he said “from the beginning” he was referring to a time less than 13 billion years ago but more than several thousand?

In the intervening two thousand years we have learned a lot more about God’s creation and it continues to astound us how infinitely beautiful, complex and massive it really is. If Jesus were speaking to us today, would it make sense for Him to speak to us as first-century Palestininans, or would He have the ability to offer us even deeper understandings of the creation? (I picture him at CERN explaining to the particle physicists how to improve their experiments.) Why, then, do we insist on reading the Bible as if we were Palestinian fisherman?

By approaching it this way there is no need to distort Scripture, nor to reject our scientific understanding of the universe. Why, after all, did God give us such powerful brains? As our understanding increases we usually find that it conforms to the Scriptures in a way we could never have imagined. Who would have thought that the discovery of the background microwave radiation would settle the dispute among astronomers and cosmologists as to whether the universe had a beginning or had always existed. When the truth was finally determined, it turns out that Genesis was right, that everything that exists was brought into being all at once out of nothing.

We will not always be able to harmonize what we can discover through our senses with what the Holy Spirit teaches us, but when there are apparent conflicts we can say that we’re still very young and continue to learn at the feet of our Father.

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God, the Father

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. – from the Nicene Creed

The creed begins with the single most important statement, a belief without which no faith is possible. “I believe in … God.”

This is not unique to Christian or even Judeo-Christian theology. Belief in deities is a cultural universal. All cultures have at their core a belief in something greater than they are. And anyone who rejects this basic belief is by definition an atheist. Catholic and Evangelicals alike confirm their unshakable belief in God.

But more importantly, we all believe in God as one God. We are both entirely monotheistic and this finds expression in a number of places in Scripture:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: – Deuteronomy 6:4 (KJV) 

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.  – Isaiah 44:6 (KJV)
And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: – Mark 12:29 (KJV)

We also share the trinitarian concept of God (for which the creed was its perfect affirmation), and this first part of the creed is devoted to God, the Father and affirms His role as omnipotent Creator.

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him…” Colossians 1:13

It’s important to note that the phrase “all things visible and invisible” was in direct opposition to the teachings of the Gnostics who believed that there were a number of divine powers in the world. This affirmation in the creed makes it clear that there is no God above the God of Israel. In Christian theology, this means that however many invisible things there are (thrones, dominions, principalities, or powers) they are all created, but God and God alone is uncreated Being. On this point Catholics and Evangelicals agree 100%.

So even in this one short sentence we see a very full elaboration of the Person of God, the Father. I take great joy in knowing that Catholics and Evangelicals are in complete agreement thus far. If anyone feels this is not the case, please comment so we explore the possibility that we understand things differently.

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It’s about time to talk about time

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. – Khalil Gibran

It’s been six days since I posted anything, but things were bubbling around in my head and I didn’t want to commit them to blog until I had a clearer sense of what I needed to say. It will take a few posts to get it all out so here’s a start.

Consciousness is a very slippery concept. Thinking about thinking can really get you thinking, am I right? I could write pages of thoughts on the phenomenon of consciousness but I want to focus here on a crucial aspect of it, namely our perception of time.

We know what the Past is (I’m going to capitalize these terms), at least if we have properly functioning minds. It is composed of memories of all that we have already experienced. There are some very interesting stories about people whose short and long term memory is compromised. Oliver Sacks has a number of good books about these things and I refer you there. Studying pathology often gives us a clearer sense of what “normal” really means. But for our purposes we’re discussing the Past as we experience it. And the Past is more than our own memories. We learn that other people have had experiences and we learn this by talking to them and even by reading accounts of things that happened long ago. The Past is real and those who love history love a real thing.

We also know what the Future is. It is, for the most part, a mental construct, an extrapolation of our Past, forward in time. In other words, we experience the Future as a projection of our Past. It is a sense that what has happened will again happen in some form or another. More on that later.

But this thing called the Present is a slippery beast indeed. We all have a sense of what it is but the more we try to experience it, the smaller it gets until it seems to have no substance at all. How can something so real have no dimension? Here’s an analogy that helped me.

Suppose you are looking down at a lake. You can certainly see the surface of that lake, so it really does exist. But how thick is it? Even when you get down to the level of the atoms that compose it, at some point there are water molecules below and air molecules above and the surface of that lake becomes the surface of atoms and where does that leave us? No further ahead than we were before.

If you think about it (and mostly we try not to) the surface is nothing more than a boundary, a point of transition from one material to another. It is real, but not in a tangible sense. It is a construct of our minds. And it is the same way with the Present. There is a boundary “in time” where “what has yet to happen” becomes “what has happened.” The Present is the boundary between the Future and the Past. And no matter how closely you observe it, there is never a measurable length of time that is the Present. It, too, is a construct of the mind.

Yet we live our entire lives there, and there alone. We cannot live in the Past, nor can we live in the Future. We live in that infinitesimally small place called the Present, and everything that we have ever done or ever will do happens there. But we often completely neglect it. We are constantly thinking about the Future or “dwelling” in the Past and are rarely, if ever, mindful of the moment that separates them.

There is a somewhat vulgar aphorism heard around AA to the effect that an alcoholic has one foot in the past, one foot in the future and is sh***ing all over today. It’s repeated because it speaks to the same truth I just elaborated, only reduced to its essentials. And we’ve all heard the same thought expressed various other ways, “living in the Now,” “…that’s why they call it the present,” and most certainly “One Day at a Time,” which we often shorten to “one minute at a time” or “one second at a time.” We can shorten it ad infinitum until we reach the same conclusion: that we must live our lives in the one instant we are given and in which to choose how we will live.

When we look at it this way, our Past is not merely memories of events. Instead, it is the recollection of the myriad choices we made in that place called the Present. (If you’ve ever had a severe regret you know what I mean.) So in one sense, the Present is eternal. There are an infinite number of “Presents” that make up the past. And there are going to be an infinite number composing the Future as well. If we truly live in the Present then we are, in one sense, living in the Eternal Now.

But, as I said earlier, the Future is no more than an extrapolation of our Past. To phrase it another way, the Future is illuminated by the Past. Why do newcomers feel so hopeless? Because the dismal gray light of their Past is the only lamp they possess to see the Future with. However, as we work the program, we make better and better decisions, and our past begins to grow brighter and brighter. And soon our vision of the Future is bright indeed.

A lot of our defects of character arise out of our distorted sense of time. That’s why I took so much time (pun intended) laying it out. I am going to do some posts on resentment and worry, so I wanted to make sure I explained my concept before launching forward.

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Credo

The blog has a purpose. I was pondering just how I could bring Catholics and Evangelicals together when I recalled one of the events in my life that started turning me toward Rome. I was challenged to read the Catechism and could find very little I disagreed with. I was amazed that the Roman Catholic Church toward which I held such animosity was, in fact, pretty much in agreement with most Protestant doctrine, at least in matters of faith and morals. Sure, there were things I felt I could not accept, but I really had to look for them.

So it is in this spirit that I would like to start an exploration of one of the most fundamental expressions of Christian orthodoxy, the Nicene creed. But before I begin I would like to explore what it is and why it came into being.

The creed takes it’s English name from the first word in the Latin version, “credo” – “I believe.” It was adopted primarily to counter the heresy of Arianism which held that Jesus was a created being and not co-eternal with the Father. As Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, we believe in the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it was in this creed that most of the theological elements of the Doctrine of the Trinity were set out in detail. There have been subsequent controversies regarding elements of the creed, especially between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but they are irrelevant for our purposes here.

I plan to discuss each section of the creed in separate posts and examine them in terms of both Evangelical and Catholic theology and see where or even if we disagree. I’ll be using the current form adopted recently by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as it is a much better translation of the Latin form which was in use at the time of the Reformation. In other words, this was the creed that Luther and the Reformers confessed. And it is the creed that sits as the foundation of Evangelical theology.

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Shedding “light” on Creation

In one of the discussion threads on christiannews.net the issue once again arose regarding the age of the Earth. This particular discussion dealt with newly discovered intact fossil fish. The debate raged (on and on and on) about geology and Genesis and man’s creation. But I asked a question several times and could not get any responses (save one) from “young earth” believers: Is the Earth the same age as the universe or is it much older?

So in the next series of posts I want to explore if and how the Biblical account of creation squares with our empirical understanding. I will start by exploring the first created thing: light.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. – Genesis 1:3

You can’t get much earlier than that.

Sir Isaac Newton is considered the first scientist to explore the nature of light. He was able to determine that white light was actually composed of many colors, i.e. a spectrum. Isn’t it interesting that the God left a spectrum (rainbow) as a sign that he would never again destroy the Earth.Was light composed of many colors prior to the Flood? We have no way of knowing for sure, but we can be certain that such is the case today.

Another thing that Newton determined was that light behaves like a wave. Using a double slit experiment he observed the interference pattern that one would expect a wave to produce. In the physics of that time, it was believed that waves were fluctuations in density of some medium, so if light were a wave then there must be some medium in which it propagated. No one knew what it was, so they proposed a hypothesis that the universe was infused everywhere with a substance with no mass which could occupy the same space a other objects. It was deemed the luminiferous aether (or ether). It was a major goal of 19th century science to determine its nature.

If there were such a thing as the ether, then it was reasonable to expect the velocity of light to differ depending on the direction in which it was measured. After all the Earth was speeding through space at considerable velocity.One experiment sought to prove the hypothesis that the velocity of light differed depending upon the direction in which it was measured. This is the famous Michelson-Morley experiment. It is one of the classic examples of a falsifiable hypothesis and this experiment is a stunning example of falsification What they found was that light propagated at exactly the same velocity irrespective of the direction in which it was measured. In other words, they determined that the velocity of light in a vacuum was a constant.

This would have major repercussions in physics leading eventually to the Special Theory of Relativity. It is of such major importance that the question must be asked: Is there anything in Michelson-Morley the contradicts the Biblical account of the creation of light?

I am very interested in getting the response of anyone (especially a pastor or teacher) who holds to a more literal reading of Genesis. If we can’t come to some common ground on this topic there may be little hope in harmonizing the Biblical creation account with current cosmology.

Let’s hear what you have to say.

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Fighting fire or fighting firemen?

“Jennifer” replied to one of my posts on christiannews.net regarding concerns we have over the direction Pope Francis appears to be taking us. I had expressed some reservations about his Jesuit worldview and she agreed that she had similar concerns.

Specifically, she wondered how those who believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and those who deny it can operate under one roof. This cuts to the very purpose of the blog site. It’s one thing to want Christians to work together to achieve positive change in this increasingly anti-Christian world, but how exactly do we overcome our differences? What kind of “roof” can we operate under?

I have two approaches to that. First, to list the things that we all share in common and that cause us to identify as Christians. And second, to identify the specific evils in the world that we need to address together.

The first is what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” What does that mean? Here’s my (perhaps incomplete) list:

  • That Jesus Christ was truly the Son of God.
  • That Jesus Christ lived and walked on the earth
  • That Jesus Christ performed miracles
  • That Jesus’ death on the cross is the sole means by which we obtain salvation
  • That Jesus intended His church to survive eternally

Catholic believe these things to be literally true. Evangelicals believe these things to be literally true. And although there are other immense theological differences between us, we can still choose to set these aside and choose to cooperate as Christians in love and brotherhood.

Here are some of the evils in the world we must work together to overcome:

  • The evil of abortion
  • The evil of inhibiting the free exercise of our religion by limiting our speech
  • The evil of compelling us to operate against our religious principles
  • The evil of a hostile LGBT minority that seeks to demonize any deviation from their political agenda by any means at their disposal
  • The evil of religious genocide
  • The evil imposition of Sharia law by force

This may not be an exhaustive list, but I think it lays out both the common ground for our cooperation as well as goals towards which can agree to work.

If out of this comes a greater tolerance of one another’s beliefs, then it is all to the good. But that is not necessary to begin to accomplish the tasks at hand.

I liken our problem to two people in the midst of a burning building, arguing about whose firefighting techniques are the best instead of just putting out the fire any way they can.

Why can’t we just put out the fire?

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All things in moderation

Since this is my blog I am also the administrator. That means that I have the ability to moderate comments before they appear on the site. There are some discussion sites that block content they feel is not germane to their purposes. I suppose I would do the same if someone started directing their comment to unrelated issues such as politics or vegetarianism since this is not what we do. But I would never block content that challenged my beliefs or the beliefs of other commentators.

The only thing I insist on is civility and as open mind to other viewpoints. So I would like to propose some minimal ground rules.

  • No ad hominem posts. Please do not attack a person for what she or he says or believes.
  • No off-topic posts. Please address your comments to the actual matter at hand.
  • Please start your comments by stating something positive. You can almost always find common ground. And even if you can’t, you can thank the person and show that you understand their point of view.

I hope no one finds these guidelines onerous. I genuinely want my thinking to be challenged. I hope you each share that goal.


As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” – Proverbs 27:17 NIV

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