Monday, March 26, 2007

Frustrations with Origen

In reading God's Rivals, I became very frustrated with Origen. On the one hand, we have a legitimately brilliant theologian and pastor, a la Bonhoeffer. As McDermott writes, "By night he studied the Bible and by day he prepared his students for martyrdom." On the other hand, Origen was quite comfortable engaging in wild speculations - for examples, he theorized a Mormon-like pre-existence, where our obedience or disobedience to God resulted in the context of our birth (rich/poor, Christian/nonChristian, etc.). Origen apparently felt that he would throw out these ideas and allow the church to determine which to be true and which to be heretical. He got his wish, unfortunately. In 553 (300 years after his death), he was declared a heretic at the Second Council of Constantinople.

Review: God's Rivals

Gerald R. McDermott. God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? 2007, IVP.

McDermott raises an interesting question with his subtitle, and he turns to the Bible and to early Christian writers for some answers. A great idea: in North America, where Christianity is by far the most dominant religion, it's easy to forget that the Bible and the church were birthed in societies obsessed with a multitude of gods and religious systems. McDermott notes, as well, that Greco-Roman philosophy was itself a religious system, based on the idea that God could be discovered through reason. McDermott devotes one chapter each to surveys of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.

The insights that McDermott are surprising, at least to me. Using passages such as Daniel 10:13 (referencing the "prince of Persia," a spiritual being with authority over Persia) and Deut. 32:8-9 (where God allots nations "according to the number of the gods" - McDermott favors "sons of elohim" instead of "sons of Israel" based on manuscript evidence), McDermott argues that the OT hints at the following:
  • YHWH created "the hosts" as spiritual beings with varying degrees of authority.
  • Some of the spiritual beings were given authority over nations or ethnic groups, such as the archangel Michael over Israel.
  • These spiritual beings have largely rebelled against YHWH. This is connected to the fall of Lucifer.
  • Because of their rebellion, these spiritual beings have led men and women to worship them instead of worshiping the true God.
It's important to note that McDermott only suggests this as a possible reading. The early Christian writers he covers, however, take it as a given that the gods of other nations are fallen angels. In subsequent chapters, McDermott reviews Paul's famous words regarding principalities and powers, and the varying views of the four early Christian writers he chose. The Christian writers wrestled with the major question of how much truth other religions contain. Their answer, to differing degrees, is "some." Clement goes so far as to suggest that other religions may be God's covenants with other nations, analogous to God's covenant with Israel, covenants which point to and are to be replaced by the new covenant of Jesus Christ.

Two concluding thoughts: First, McDermott wants to recapture the Bible's and the early church's view of other religions as having spiritual components. There are real spiritual beings behind these other religions; they are much more than simply "mistakes" or human searches for God. Because they originate with spiritual beings originally created by God, other religions contain some kernel of truth. McDermott writes,
This also means that other religionists are not our enemy...Our real battle, as Paul advises us, is not against human beings - flesh and blood - but against "the cosmic powers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:12). (165)
Thus, our attitude toward other religions should be respectful and characterized by "patient persuasion, not hostile argument."

Second, McDermott does an excellent job of bringing early Christian writers to life. Using Eusebius' history of the early church, McDermott interweaves the theologies of these writers with their personal testimonies and contexts. He leads me to desire to read them for myself.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Give It Away Now

Gregg Easterbrook writes that the super-rich (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, et al.) should give away a far higher percentage of their net worth. Compared to the average American, the super-rich donate a pittance of their net worth, and keep far more than they (or all of their descendents) could ever use. Easterbrook asks,

Why do the super-rich hoard? Certainly not because they need money to spend. As economist Christopher Carroll of Johns Hopkins University points out in an upcoming paper, the super-rich save far more than they could ever spend, even with Dionysian indulgence. Gates' fortune must throw off, even by conservative estimations, about $6 million a day after taxes. You couldn't spend $6 million every day of your life even if you did nothing all day long but buy original art and waterfront real estate. The fortunes of Allen, Knight and others mentioned here throw off at least $1 million a day after taxes. Nobody can spend $1 million every day.

Carroll speculates that the super-rich won't give away money they know they will never use for two reasons: because they love money, and because extreme wealth confers power. We know already that people who give their lives over to loving money surrender their humanity in the process. As for clout, Carroll quotes Howard Hughes: "Money is the measuring rod of power." That $53 billion ensures Gates will be treated with awe wherever he goes. If he gave away 78% of his wealth like Carnegie did, he might be universally admired, but he would no longer be treated with the same degree of fawning reverence. He might even, someday, find himself in the same room with someone who has more money!

I would add another, less cynical reason why they don't give more: it's too hard. That may sound strange, considering the massive, obvious needs in the world, combined with the large staffs that these men can employ to find worthy causes. But the nature of philanthropy makes it difficult to pipeline hoards of money into charity.

Compare philanthropy to the stock market. If I have $1 billion, any stock broker in the country would be falling down all over himself to invest my money. Further, it would be relatively easy to tell whether my $1 billion was "working." I could check my portfolio weekly - even hourly if I chose - and see whether my net worth was going up or down. My portfolio would be invested in one or more businesses, and there are a multitude of clear measures - such as revenue, expenses, profit, market share, sales volume - I could check to see whether the business was heading in the right direction or not.

There are no monetary returns with philanthropy, and no comparable standardized measures like market share. Even the most tangible measures - number of meals served - tell only part of the story. Maybe the charity served 50% more meals to the homeless than last quarter. But the mission is to reduce hunger. Are more meals a sign of success in feeding more people, a sign of failure because more people are hungry? Further, a stock broker would know exactly what to do with an extra $1 billion. I would argue that most charities would be at a loss over how to handle a sudden doubling of their budget. There would be no guarantee that the money would be spent appropriately, and, unless the billionaire attached a multitude of strings, no way to change the direction of the money once given to the charity. Ironically, the profit motive in business has created a model of scalability and the means to process money that philanthropy has yet to match.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

This Just In: Wikipedia Wrong!

Yet another case of Wikipedia providing bad information:

MIAMI (AP) -- Actor-comedian Sinbad had the last laugh after his Wikipedia entry announced he was dead, the performer said Thursday.

Rumors began circulating Saturday regarding the posting, said Sinbad, who first got a telephone call from his daughter. The gossip quieted, but a few days later the 50-year-old entertainer said the phone calls, text messages and e-mails started pouring in by the hundreds.

"Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again," the Los Angeles-based entertainer told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

I love Wikipedia. It's a great way to get a quick overview of virtually any topic. Good articles also refer to you to helpful, reliable references. In some areas, it's far and away the best resource I've found - for example, comic book characters, software comparisons, and, maybe unexpectedly, theology. With topics that a) many people with b) divergent perspectives c) care strongly about, then Wikipedia works quite well. Bad information is quickly squelched.

The problems arise when people don't realize that literally anyone can edit Wikipedia. I think this is partly Wikipedia's fault. It's easy to miss. The home page only calls itself "the free encyclopedia." The English main page goes further, calling itself "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," but this important statement disappears when you actually view an article. I would wager that most people stumble upon Wikipedia entries through Google searches and never even seen the "anyone can edit" statement.

The term "encyclopedia," for most people, connotes authority. Further, most people don't know what a "wiki" is, so they miss the important element of Wikipedia's name. If Wikipedia's tagline was "the free community resource" or "the free user-created encyclopedia," then I bet less confusion and litigation would occur.

At least Sinbad has a sense of humor about it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Religion Reporting

I wish that reporters who cover the religion beat knew their theology better. For example, in this article, which is about the efforts of "moderate Christians" (those who follow Christ in moderation?) to counter teachings about the rapture. The writer, Andrea Hopkins, does a pretty good job of comparing Tim LaHaye's Left Behind novels with the teachings of the of Lutheran and Episcopal ministers she interviews, but she slips late in the article when she confuses the rapture with the second coming:

The success of the graphic novels is just one indication of the strength of belief in rapture, Armageddon, and the subsequent second coming of Jesus Christ. A 2006 survey for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 79 percent of American Christians believe in the second coming, with 20 percent believing it will happen in their lifetime.
I should hope that all Christians would believe in the second coming, since Jesus himself promised that it would happen, and it's been included from the very beginning in foundational documents like the Nicene Creed. But the rapture is a distinct sub-belief, believed only by premillenialists, and then only by some premillenialists.

Also, Hopkins, as well as some of the ministers she interviews, seem to think that the rapture is based on Revelation, when the true foundation of rapture theology is 1 Thessalonians. I really wouldn't expect the average reporter to pick up on this, but it's disappointing that these ministers aren't a bit more precise.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Lotteries: We're All Winners!

This article from the NY Times describes a study which argues in favor of lotteries. The study found that simply imagining you could win has beneficial psychological effects.

“The people who denigrate lottery players are like 10-year-olds who are disgusted by the idea of sex: they are numb to its pleasures, so they say it’s not rational,” said Lloyd Cohen, a professor of law at George Mason University and author of an economic analysis, “Lotteries, Liberty and Legislatures,” who is himself a gambler and a card counter.

Dr. Cohen argues that lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver.

That sounds more like an argument in favor of lifestyle magazines. Sure, you can't buy them for a buck, but the pictures are prettier.

If the real benefit of lottery tickets comes from your imagination, couldn't you just, um, use your imagination? Since when do I need to pay the someone a buck for the privilege of daydreaming that I have a boat?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Why I Hate Sports (or How is this Christian education?)

The NY Times is reporting that the NCAA is no longer accepting transcripts from 4 high schools, including Luther Christian Academy in Philadelphia. Some of the key factoids about Luther Christian from the article:
  • The basketball coach, Daryl Schofield, is also the only teacher.
  • Four students told the NCAA that they are not required to attend class.
  • Schofield bragged that the school is adding a library next year (so, up until now, they did not have one).
  • The NY Times paraphrases Schofield saying that most of the students have already graduated high school, but "need another year of exposure as players."
  • To come into compliance with the NCAA, Schofield - again, the basketball coach and only teacher - said that he's planning to attend a conference on Christian education.
This isn't the only basketball team-disguised-as-a-school that calls itself "Christian." I'm also reminded of incidents from the past couple of years in which "Christian" high schools used over-age football players in order to win games against rivals.

Are these schools part of a trend of Christians breaking rules and compromising students' education for the sake of sports success, or is it more of a general societal trend? Does it have anything to do with the idolization of Christian athletes as role models for the faith?

IMHO, Christians need to develop a theology of sports - I'm completely serious about this - that unpacks the meaning of sports and competition within the Christian life. This is an opinion I've had for a while. Sports is a HUGE factor in American culture, but there are rarely sermons that address sports as more than a metaphor or example of some other point. Without a theology of sports, which puts sports in the proper perspective and explore how they can be a fruitful part of a Christian's life, it's so easy for their importance to become overblown.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Catholics and Protestants

A Question from Class: Would a Catholic see a member of Lakeside (or other Protestant Christian) as saved? I'm just curious as who they define as "saved"--those with a personal relationship with Christ, those who observe the sacrements, those who observe sacrements at a Catholic church, etc?

My Answer:
Great question! I am in the middle of reading a book that talks about exactly that.

Are Protestant saved, according to Catholics? Before Vatican II, the answer would have been simply, "No." There is a Catholic dogma that states, "outside the church there is no salvation," and that was understood to mean that Protestants are "outside the church." (But not Eastern Orthodox churches - Catholic theology has recognized them as "true churches" for several hundred years.)

Vatican II changed all that. There was a document called Lumen Gentium ("Light to the Nations") that acknowledged that there are true Christians, who are truly saved and in whom God is truly working, but who are not part of the Roman Catholic church. In other words, it recognized for the first time (!) that you can be Protestant and still be saved. Vatican II also spurred the Catholic Church to find common ground with other churches, with the idea that, as theological differences were worked out, those churches would "come home" to the "Mother Church" ( i.e. Rome). (That hasn't exactly happened the way they planned.)

But (there's always a but!), a church like Lakeside is a bit of a puzzle to Catholic theology. That same Lumen Gentium defines "the Church" as those who "preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter" - i.e. the pope. Catholics view church as "top down," starting with Christ, then flowing the apostles, and only then to the people. It's the popes, bishops, and priests who form the foundation of the church. They don't have a very good grid for understanding "bottom up" churches, where the church is first and foremost a fellowship of believers, who then elect and ordain their own leaders. So some Catholics would hesitate to even call Lakeside a church! ( I think from Acts and 1 & 2 Corinthians, however, that it's pretty clear that we are.)

Finally, in terms of who is saved, I decided to look it up in the Catholic Catechism, which the official word on pretty much everything. When speaking about the people of God, it says that
One becomes a member of this people [of God] not by a physical birth, but by being "born anew," a birth "of water and the Spirit," that is, by faith in Christ, and Baptism.

That's really close to what Lakeside says! It's just a small matter of defining "faith" and "baptism." :)