In the Present Tense

November 2, 2010

Political parties. . .and Churches?

I’m departing from the series on First Principles– well, sorta– because I want to talk about something that’s timely.

As I write this, it looks like a political tide of historic proportions is about to sweep the U.S. This is not a partisan post. I’m not going to comment on whether I’m in favor or opposed to either the current direction of policy, or the predicted wave of opposition to it.

Numerous commentators on both sides of the issue have pointed out that it’s not generally a good idea to tell voters that they are too stupid, or angry, or inattentive– whatever– to know what’s good for you. In my years, I’ve seen this from all sides of the political spectrum at different times. In politics, it’s self-defeating.

What concerns me is that I have often heard this same thing from evangelists, preachers, and other church officials. For example, “If they don’t respond to our evangelism, it’s because they are hardened in sin,” one might say.

“Yes, I know, it’s terrible how blinded people have become by the corruption in society,” another might reply.

I’ve actually heard serious people saying this things. Repeatedly. For many years.

Imagine a business saying “Our customers are just not bright enough to buy our product.” Or buying ad advertisement telling customers, “If you actually knew what you were doing, you would beg us to sell you our services.” A business that says that sort of thing would soon be out of business.

But churches and political parties often become so certain of how correct they are, that anyone who doesn’t come on board is stupid, foolish, or not paying attention.

Well, the Bible makes it pretty clear that people–including ourselves– are in fact stupid, foolish, and not paying attention. That simply gives us a better idea of what our task is. It is precisely sinful, corrupted, hardened, foolish, and inattentive people it is our duty to reach.

Put another way, both political parties and churches that bemoan the condition of their audience should instead recognize that it is their message, their marketing, their communication that is lacking.

Next time you hear someone talking about how difficult it is to reach the audience, be aware that they’re really saying: We don’t know how to do our job. Because a prerequisite to learning is admitting our ignorance.


October 25, 2010

First Principle: The Tree of Liberty

Filed under: Christianity and Politics, Present Truth — edoutlook @ 2:34 am

We are so accustomed to certain things that we lose sight of how remarkable they are. For example, this short passage in Genesis 2.

“Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.  And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

God planted the garden. It’s His. Why does he put a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in that garden? If we believe the Bible, we believe God knows the end from the beginning. He knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He knew the sin and suffering that would come from that, knew that the only remedy would be the sacrifice of his Son, that a member of the Godhead would have to become a part of humanity forever.

Knowing all that, God went ahead with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why? What can we conclude from that?

I conclude that liberty, the right to make choices, choices that matter, must be very, very important. C. S. Lewis says that God gave to humans “the dignity of causality.” That is, we can make choices that alter the course of history.

In fact, that’s exactly what Adam and Eve did. They made choices that plunged the world into sin, that introduced suffering and death. Real choices. Real consequences.

Having made that choice, all humankind became sinners. That is, we could not longer choose good. All our choices would be evil.

Christ died to restore our ability to choose good.

We can still choose evil. Indeed, every time we sin, we misuse the liberty Christ died to give us, for in him “we live, and move, and have our being.” Again, C.S. Lewis says that every sin is at base an act of sacrilege, because we take something sacred, the power of God that sustains us, and use it for profane ends.

And despite all that God and Christ have done, they still allow us to choose to be lost, to choose evil and death.

Then we have the millennium, where the books of Heaven are opened and we get to audit God’s actions. God allows us to decide whether He was just or not. It’s amazing.

What we see throughout the Bible is that God will not coerce our will, nor will he allow Satan to do so. We may surrender our will to the Evil One– and God will respect that choice.

So I conclude that liberty, freedom to choose and act, is one of the most important things in the universe. If it’s that important to God, if it would lead him to sacrifice His own Son to preserve it, it must be one of the most sacred things in the universe.

When the Declaration of Independence cited liberty as an inalienable right which comes from our Creator, they got it right. The Bible makes it clear that God granted us choice from the beginning, and continually seeks to preserve and respect that right.

October 12, 2010

First Principles

I apologize for the long delay between posts. I’ve been unbelievably busy.


This blog is for believers. If you don’t believe in God, there are other posts I’ll write just for your consideration. My friends know I don’t insist people believe what I do, but welcome honest questions.

But this one is just for those who believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible.  And I don’t intend to argue fine points here. Quite the opposite. I’m interested only in talking about broad truths. Not details about the six-day creation, or exactly the role of women. Though they are important, that’s not what I want to discuss.

My dear sister reminded me recently of something I shared with her some thirty years ago. She said it had spared her from many a strange doctrine. I know it has always served me well, so I share it here.

Many of the debates and issues which rage in the church through the years can seem quite confusing. Often both sides of the debate appear quite reasonable, or at least plausible. Sometimes neither one seems clear. Time and again I have found refuge in “First Principles.”

Jesus demonstrated this approach in the question regarding divorce. He was asked if men could divorce their wives, as Moses said. Note the subtle trap. “Do you agree with Moses? or are you heretical?” Rather than taking the bait, Jesus resorted to first principles. “In the beginning it was not so.”

If we believe in God, and that He communicated the important things to us through the Bible, then we cannot go wrong with first principles. Belief in first principles comes down to something this simple: When God created human beings and the earth they lived in, He knew what he was doing. Whenever we are confronted with a teaching that says to us, either implicitly or explicitly, “God didn’t know what He was doing,” then we know something is wrong with the teaching.

Let me give you another example. More than thirty years ago, a bunch of cassette tapes were circulating (for those under 25, think of them as podcasts) which declared that we should eliminate all oil and oily foods from our diet. Lots of conscientious and health-conscious people went about doing just that.

As a teacher and school principal at the time, a number of church members asked me my opinion. I said, “It can’t be right.” That surprised them. Some wanted to know my credentials as a dietitian or nutritionist– I had none. Many wanted to know how I could be so certain. For me it was a simple case. Fruits and nuts were part of the diet God gave man in Eden. Few things contain higher percentages of oil than nuts. So, “Did God know what He was doing when He gave us nuts to eat?” My answer had to be yes, God knew what He was doing, and that meant that the teaching about eliminating all oily foods couldn’t be true.

Another quick example. In grad school, Education students had to take a course titled “Comparative Education,” which explored the similarities and differences of education in various cultures. Since I was at Andrews University, my class was itself very international. One student was from Hong Kong, another from Egypt, a third from Thailand, yet another from the West Indies– and so on. One day during discussion, our Egyptian student, a young man, began to declare that the problem with education in the US and most of the West was “co-education.” Educating young men and young women in the same classes, he maintained, could only lead to immorality and corruption.

Since this was the late 1970’s (I know, I know, I’m really old), and the remnants of hippie culture dominated American campuses, it was hard to argue with the fellow. After his verbal volley, the teacher, instead of answering him, asked the class members to answer.  As each of my fellow students answered, it became increasingly clear that the main arguments they had were cultural– in other words, “In my country, we do it this way.” The debate was hardening, not resolving. Finally, the teacher looked at me.

“All I know to do is to go back to the Beginning,” I said. “In Genesis it’s clear  that Eden was the first school, Adam and Eve the first students, and God their teacher,” I continued. “That sounds like co-education to me. If that was God’s ideal design in the beginning, I don’t see how it can be ‘the problem’ today. We humans are sinful, and we have problems, so those problems show up in all our institutions. But unless we have clear direction otherwise, it seems to me that God’s first plan is still the best.”

I still believe this. If Eden was the perfect plan, then the closer we can approach to it, the better.  I believe in all things, God knew what He was doing. And so many, many questions of today that seem perplexing to some, seem much simpler to me. I will mention one are that I will take up in the future, and that’s the environmental movement. First principles have a lot to tell us about that.

As always, I welcome comments and questions. I have offered this because it has literally spared me many an anxious moment, and helped me navigate some of the trickiest currents we encounter in life. I commend it to you.

August 19, 2010

The Startling Conclusion

Resuming the stages of faith and leadership.

Somewhere along this journey comes– the Dark Night of the Soul II– which I simply call “Gethsemane.” Yes, Jesus had two dark nights of the soul, and as he told us, the servant is not greater than the master. We can expect no less– unless we short-circuit the process, and choose to stay at an earlier level. But if we choose growth, we will encounter a second dark night of the soul.

The First, like Jesus temptation in the wilderness, tempts us with easy choices. Indeed, in M. Scott Peck’s “The People of the Lie,” which is an examination of evil, Peck’s conclusion is that the real evil is making easy choices. Not only do I agree with it, it frightens me. Because I’m always tempted to make the easy choice.

When we get to the dark night of the soul II, to Gethsemane, we are overwhelmed with the sense of futility. We know who we are, we know our mission in life, but it seems that we will make the sacrifice and receive nothing in return. After a whole lifetime of seeking and struggling, is this all there is?

And the answer comes back, as it did for Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Perhaps our witness seems ineffective. The darkness appears stronger than our small candle. Like the flower that blooms unseen, we may think that we have lived in vain.

But of course the darkness can nevery overwhelm the light. We can never know which life we have touched that will have great results, and which would have not happened for our witness. And no flower ever blooms unseen. For the Father of all notes the fall of a sparrow, sees the light from a smoldering flax, and traces the thousands of tiny influences that lead a soul to salvation.

We live to Him and for Him, or we live for naught. And when we claw our way through Gethsemane, when we reach the conclusion “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours–” we come to the last stage: Unconditional Love.

The wrongs we have suffered no longer matter. The sacrifices shrink into insignificance. Having come into complete accord with God’s will, we can no longer hate anyone.

Now, I don’t claim to have inhabited this exalted state. At times, I think I may have visited. I have met others who certainly appeared to have attained this state.

One would think that, when a person attains this unconditional love, peace would result. And internal, spiritual peace does (once again, I have visited, not attained). But that does not mean that the world is at peace with us. Quite the contrary. For if you love everyone, then you also love my enemies, and I find that particularly upsetting.

It’s interesting that nearly every one of the Disciples died a violent death. What we know of their deaths, they approached them with peace in their hearts. They were not killed because they had done violence, but because their existence was a reproach to those around them.

When confronted with Christ, or with a truly Christian person, there are two basic reactions. We see this in the gospel. The Pharisees saw Christ, and said, “Why does he have to be that way?” The disciples saw Christ and said, “Why can’t I be like that?”

True saintliness almost always evokes both those extremes. We either aspire to be like that person, or to be rid of his or her offensive example.

And this leads to M. Scott Peck’s final dictum on these stages of development. Once again, they are:

I. Romance

II. Discipleship

III. Success

IV. The Inward Journey

V. The Outward Journey

VI. Unconditional Love

Peck said, when you are one stage ahead of those around you, they admire you. When you are two stages ahead of those around you, they are perplexed by you. When you are three stages ahead of those around you– they will kill you.

I was startled when I first heard this. But then I realized I had seen it again and again. Many, many church members get stuck in the first two stages. Those who are in Romance are horrified and frightened by someone embarking on the inward journey, with its Dark Night. For them, everything’s wonderful, so anyone struggling must be ‘losing his faith.’

For the person in Discipleship, with its earnest seeking to internalize all the rules and norms, someone embarking on the Outward Journey appears to be breaking all those rules. Worse, his very existence brings tough questions to the Disciple’s world view that are not easily answered, situations with which the Disciples’ rules simply cannot cope.

In both cases, the main remedy appears to be to simply cast out the troubling individual.  They will kill you.

There’s more, but this is enough for now.

June 23, 2010

Elijah’s Razor and Social Justice

Filed under: Christianity and Politics, Culture and the Bible, Present Truth — edoutlook @ 4:14 am

I see a great deal of talk today about being a “social justice Christian.” Although supposedly a theological stance, it usually devolves into a political one: favoring certain government remedies for social ills, such as government healthcare, for instance.  Many Christians are almost tripping over one another to declare themselves “social justice Christians,” in what appears to be an attempt to distance themselves from “ordinary Christians.”

As indicated in the previous blog, I’m going to apply Elijah’s Razor to that issue. And when I do, I find that, as well-intentioned as they may be, most of these remedies are treating the symptoms, not the disease.

Just take a look at these statistics. Children from a fatherless home are:

  • 5 times more likely to commit suicide.
  • 32 times more likely to run away.
  • 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders.
  • 14 times more likely to commit rape
  • 9 times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances.
  • 9 times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution.
  • 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

And that’s just the beginning. For a fuller (and more frightening) description, go here.

Years ago, when I was regularly in contact with the legislature, members of both political parties wanted to implement measures to deal with “at risk” children. I still hear that concern mentioned, in connection with certain social policies. Well, I’m no longer going to remain silent.  You want to really help ‘at risk’ children? Then don’t enact policies that encourage fathers to leave, or women to be single mothers.  Too harsh? Try this on for size:

“”Daughters of single parents are 53% more likely to marry as teenagers, 164% more likely to have a premarital birth, and 92% more likely to dissolve their own marriages.” (that’s on the same page as the previous data)

Should we provide help for single mothers? Of course. But we must be careful to do it in ways that do not encourage other women to become single mothers, and condemn further generations to fatherlessness and all that entails.

So Elijah’s Razor compels me to oppose anything that weakens the incentives to marry carefully, and then to stay married. Want to decrease child abuse? Then make cohabitation illegal, and enforce it. Find that too coercive? Then don’t talk to me about “at risk” children. A cohabiting male is much more likely to abuse mothers and children, both physically and sexually. End cohabitation, and you will dramatically reduce abuse.

And no, this has nothing to do with legislating either religion or morality. The costs to society are enormous. If it’s reasonable to prohibit one person from dumping their trash on another’s property, it’s reasonable to prohibit them from polluting the neighborhood with behaviors that injure us all.

No doubt this will alarm some. But it is time that we are all alarmed by the damage being done to the family.

And before anyone hyperventilates, I am not proposing that we outlaw everything that is injurious. Lying is injurious in various ways, but unless you do it in court, or in a contract or other legal document, it is not illegal, nor should it be. There are many behaviors that are wrong, but are not and should not be punished by the government.

But today’s “at risk” children may well be tomorrow’s felons. Yes, as Christians, we should do all that we can to help those already at risk. But one of the best things we can do is to help prevent more children being put at risk by the irresponsible behavior of adults.

October 14, 2009

Idealism or Immaturity?

One thing that our study of the Bible reveals to us is that–I know this will sound shocking–God is not an idealist. How can I say that?

First of all, God does not have to imagine perfection. He knows what it is, and precisely how far short even our best efforts fall. As our examination of God’s dealings with humans in the Bible demonstrates, when it comes to human behavior, God is not “all-or-nothing.”

Seeing what we now consider the deplorable condition of women in the days of Moses, God did not demand equal rights and equal status for women immediately; rather, he commanded an improvement that would make a difference for the better.

In the same way, God did not demand that Israel go from unlimited retribution to forgiving 70 times 7. Instead he limited retribution to “an eye for an eye,” as opposed to  being avenged 77 times (See Gen 4:24).

God’s actions in the Bible contrast strongly with many who claim to represent His views today. For them, it is indeed all or nothing. I regularly receive a newsletter from an explicitly Christian periodical that continually instructs me as to what God wants me to do concerning certain political issues (and no, it’s not “Focus on the Family”). They’re continually telling me that I live in a selfish, unjust society. Apparently they think that’s news. It seems to me that’s just the condition of sinful human beings.

Seeing human society as imperfect, they demand it become perfect, immediately. They claim to represent God when chanting “What do we want?” “Social Justice!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

That’s supposed to be an expression moral courage. But it sounds more to me like a tantrum. I have seen many a 5-year-old demanding something they thought would improve their world. They always want it NOW! We don’t consider that idealism, but immaturity.

As it happens, nearly 20 years ago I was instrumental in changing what I viewed as an unjust law in my state of Iowa, that effectively prevented families from teaching their children at home. For years, people had been demanding that the law be changed NOW! And those lobbying the legislature demanded total and complete freedom, with no accountability whatsoever to government. I sympathized with the goal, but found the methods objectionable–even counterproductive.

A number of us went to work in a much different way, working at the grassroots, informing people, helping them understand how their legislators thought and acted. At the same time, I lobbied the legislators, introducing them to cordial — not shouting– constituents who wanted to homeschool. It took time and effort, almost none of which gave the immediate feeling of moral superiority of a demonstration, and received minimal media attention.

And the absolutists–who wanted absolute perfection, NOW!–opposed our efforts all the way. Did we achieve perfection? Of course not. That’s not available in this world. But it’s interesting. The very people who asked the Governor to veto our bill 20 years ago want to take credit for it now!

I like to think what we did more closely resembles God’s approach. We didn’t insist on perfection, NOW, from a group of imperfect people, the legislature. We did what we could to get the most improvement in conditions. Instead of demanding perfect justice, we did our best to minimize injustice. No one today denies that we made things better for families; and we never claimed we achieved perfection.

There is a tendency today to contrast whatever exists, or whatever happens,as a result of decisions, with some ‘ideal.’ In some quarters this is hailed as ‘idealism,’ and to be encouraged. But the Bible reveals a record of continual, gradual improvement in human conditions.

Yes, at the 2nd Coming, God will erase all injustice, and bring in a New and Perfect Earth and Society. But that is His work, not ours. Until then, while we strive for continual improvement, we should not delude ourselves that we can, by our efforts, bring anything like heaven on earth. That is just another form of legalism, of self-righteousness. We need to remember that, absent the merits of Christ, our righteousness is as filthy rags. Until He comes, this will remain true individually–and as a society.

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