The Anti-scientific Dogmatism of Atheism, (or: Why Harvard Professor Steven Pinker is a Big, Fat, Stupidhead)

Pinker.jpgSteven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a 2018 bestselling book from the hand of a Harvard professor of psychology which triumphs the accomplishments of science, reason, progress, and humanism. The values of the Enlightenment, he says, have worked. We’re a better species for all of these intellectual developments, which have led to tangible improvements in all human society – longer lives, better healthcare, less violence, more education, broader knowledge, and more happiness. Critics have piled praise on this mega-seller. Bill Gates has called it his “favorite book of all time.”

Not everyone likes it. Pinker claims that liberal and conservative critics of his work alike are offended at his ideas and “really hate progress” (52). In fact, his critics don’t generally hone in on his pollyanna pronouncements. They focus on the fact that he attributes progress to an overly simplistic cause-and-effect relationship with the values that Pinker favors. The Atlantic calls attention to the fact that the scientific establishment upends the emotional attachments and longings of the hometown suburbanite (Gopnik, 4/18; also cf. Szalai, NYT, 2/18), but longing for traditional family isn’t one of the values that Pinker perceives to be contributing to human flourishing. Vox points out that the true challenges to Enlightenment Now are “reasonable points made by knowledgeable professionals about what one needs to prove to give a convincing account of the impact of the Enlightenment” (Hanlon, 5/18), professionals like David Bell, Princeton historian, who questions why Pinker doesn’t engage in any real analysis of Enlightenment thinkers. Rousseau, for instance, was one of the most popular Enlightenment thinkers and didn’t believe in the progress Pinker panagyrizes, and Enlightenment thinkers didn’t oppose religion the way Pinker says enlightened people must. The critics aren’t cynical. They’re rightly confused.

Me too.

My concern is a different one, speaking as a pastor and at least casual theologian. Pinker makes sweeping dismissals of anything he disagrees with, and does so with disregard for science and reason. He attempts to steal ethics from religion and hand it to science, despite the deplorably unethical uses to which science has been given historically, and his treatment of religion is exactly the kind of polemical, polarized nonsense that he is so critical of in the world of politics.

Pinker likes reason when it works for him and otherwise sets it aside – exactly the behavior that he so articulately chastises.

When it comes to ethics, there is a rigorous body of moral commitments which Pinker depends upon. However, it’s not entirely clear where they come from. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person – one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism – requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” (477). So not from there. He tips his hat to the reality that science cannot make definitive ethical prescriptions either, but he seems to hold on to the hope. Elsewhere, Pinker has claimed that maybe ethics can be found in the nature of morality, because evolution produces progress (it doesn’t actually), which is of moral value because Pinker says it is (“Evolution and Ethics,” Intelligent Thought, 2006, 150). Omitted is any consideration of the fact that modern racism was propped up by scientific theories spanning from Charles Darwin himself through the well-educated scientists of the Third Reich. The problem here is not that the science was bad, but that the scientists were bad, and bad scientists will always use the tools of science to forward evil achievements. Science is ethically neutral.

Likewise, on the subject of religion, the optimistic professor says unequivocally, “There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…” (477). Notice the deceptive grouping of the mainstream – answered prayer – with the not so much – spells. It’s like saying, “You know…science, with its gravity, evolution, aether, dark energy, leeching, feminine hysteria, Chernobyl, and Piltdown man.” More importantly, notice that he gives no reason, evidence, or science behind his claim. In a 2004 lecture to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Pinker calls the Bible “a manual for rape and genocide and destruction.” He then goes on to say that he is not aware of any scientific enquiry into the claims of religion, and tries to account for the ubiquity of religion through a quirky, piecemeal explanation that leans on psychological vocabulary without doing any science.

So here’s the kind of scientific evidence I want Pinker to account for. Scientists study first-hand evidence right under their own noses and then account for it. Some time ago, I was leading a Bible study in a room of about 40 people. We were reading miracle stories from the Bible and asking if we should have similar experiences today. A friend of mine, a medical doctor, raised his hand and told me, “Jim, I think God is telling me to pray for someone.”
“Good for you,” I said. Pastors are supposed to encourage these things, but I didn’t know what to do with that.

“I mean right now,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. This is getting weird.

“Someone in this room has trouble clenching his left hand all the way,” he said. I had no experience in such things, and only knew them through televised fundraising charlatans. Fortunately, my thoughts were interrupted.

“That’s me,” said another guy at the back of the room. “I haven’t been able to close my left hand all the way for about 20 years.” He said it didn’t bother him much, and only hurt occasionally. I sent the doctor to pray for the man in the back of the room and made plans to sympathize when nothing happened.

The next day, the man with the injured hand called me on the phone. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “My hand has been healed. Not only that, but when that guy started talking, I felt a warm sensation flow upwards from my feet through my whole body.”

Here’s the deal, Steven Pinker. Both of these guys are still friends of mine. Both can tell you the story. I’ll give you their phone numbers. A medical doctor is not a tribalistic anti-intellectual. Nor am I, actually. Nor are most Christians in America, though you seem to think they are. Furthermore, you can’t write this account off as lacking witnesses, because there was a crowd, nor coincidence, because the doctor described the situation before it happened. You can’t complain that the experiment is irreplicable, because it was, itself, a repeated test of former cases, the ones in the Bible.

The problem with Pinker’s book, and Pinker himself, generally, is that reason goes out the window on the subject of religion. Pinker claims that “we know” religion isn’t true. The problem is that there are Christians at his Harvard, and throughout the Ivy League, and not just among the student body – among the faculties. Neither John Lennox at Oxford, nor Alister McGrath at King’s College, nor Robert George at Princeton, nor Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale, nor Michael McConnell at Stanford, nor Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, nor Martin Nowak at Harvard know that religion isn’t true.

They, like the values that you don’t subscribe to, simply don’t count.

1919

As I make my morning pour-over, I call out to my central heating system through my voice-automated virtual assistant to take the chill out of the air. My toes are cold. It occurs to me to look at what the American household was like 100 years ago to see where we’ve been, an exercise I can complete in a few seconds.
 
1919. My grandparents would be born in just a few years. The Great War had just ended (“Great” because there was only one). There were no TVs. Radio was just about to catch on. Alexander G. Bell had just made the first phone call. Frigidaire had begun mass producing refrigerators the year before. The first rudimentary planes were beginning to leave the ground. Einstein’s name was just beginning to spread. The life expectancy in the US was around 55. Today it is almost 80.
 
That year, Dec. 23rd, the first patent for the central heating system was given to Alice H. Parker, an African-American woman from New Jersey. Women had just gained the right to vote that year, and women rarely had been given the opportunity to receive U.S. patents, particularly women of color.
 
“Alexa, who was Alice H. Parker?”
 
In terms of what science-fiction writers were dreaming about, the first robot appeared in film that year alongside Houdini, named Automaton. You can watch the 3 hour silent film on YouTube.
 
I wonder if we’ve even begun to dream about what 2119 will look like. Guesses?
1919

Science and Faith

monkeyThe Galileo Affair

There’s a little event that happened in 1633 which is an important conversation piece in Christianity today.  There was a guy named Galileo who studied the stars and who wanted the world to look through his new telescope.  Apparently, he said, we’ve got it wrong.  The earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.

The Catholic Church of his day was doing a little investigation called the Spanish Inquisition, in which they were forcing people to accept Christian doctrine or face torture.  They read the passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:13 that says that the sun stopped in the sky.  Well, the sun can’t very well stop if the sun isn’t the one that’s moving.  So they told Galileo to take back his doctrine, which he did.

To this day, that story is told to high school students to emphasize the fact that religious legends can be destructive tools that oppose the pursuit of truth.

One of the most destructive things a Christian can do is make decisions out of fear.  Fear doesn’t help you determine scientific facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people.

Darwin and the Church

Fast forward 220 years. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species,” in which he proposed that the history of the world doesn’t orbit around humanity.  In fact, the history is much longer, and humans are a late arrival.  Furthermore, we arrived by a long and strange route, through adaptation and survival.

This immediately sent shockwaves through Europe and America, first among the universities.  At Princeton Seminary, my alma mater, there was a division in the ranks.  One professor, Charles Hodge, wrote “What is Darwinism,” and in it said that evolution is atheistic.  He rejected it and spent his life arguing against it.  However, his colleague BB Warfield, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, wrote that one did not have to give up the Christian faith to believe in Darwinism.  He wrote, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”

Atheists however quickly took up Darwinism as their rival creation story.  Thomas Huxley went around promoting Darwin before the scientific community had even weighed in.  He took to calling himself, “Darwin’s bulldog.”  Since then, atheists have continued to promote Darwinism for philosophical rather than scientific reasons.

I’m sort of the Forest Gump of Darwinism.  You remember how Forest Gump keeps showing up in the middle of huge, significant political events without realizing what was going on?

When I was in college, a friend of mine was an intern at the church.  He was staying at the house of a family in the congregation.  I used to go over to the house, and we would watch VHS tapes listening to Christian philosophers debate about important things.  The house was owned by a Berkeley professor.  That professor was upstairs writing a book about Darwinism, and I went to his initial book launch and signing.  The professor’s name was Philip Johnson, and he wrote the book Darwin on Trial, which launched a lot of the modern debate on Darwinism.  The intern was named Tom Crisp, and he’s now the chair of the philosophy department at Biola University.

Then I went to Princeton Seminary.  While I was there, I took part in a series of seminars on Christian apologetics, exploring a defense of the Christian faith in the modern world.  One of the other students setting those up was a guy who already had two PhD’s, a guy who was particularly interested in Darwinism.  His name is William Dembski, and he has written or edited many of the great books debating Darwinism in the last 20 years.

Creation Science

Some time ago, my friend Kyle invited me to give a lecture to high school students at Mariners Church, a megachurch down in Irvine. I talked about science and the story of faith.  There was, that evening, a kid sitting in the back row next to the door.  I always pay attention to the people in the back row looking like they want to get away, because they are usually the ones to whom God wants to speak most clearly.  Eventually the kid raised his hand and he asked, “I don’t get it.  Hasn’t Darwinism just disproven Christianity?”

“That’s an interesting impression,” I said. “But actually, I think that the Bible is full of science.” I was just stalling, because I didn’t know what I what to say.  But then I realized, I think the Bible really is full of science.

I said, “Look at Genesis 1 and the story of Creation.”

On Day 1 God created light.

On Day 2 God separated the sky from the land.

On Day 3 God created the plants.

On Day 4 God created the moon and the stars.

On Day 5 God created the animals.

On Day 6 God created humanity.

I asked him, “Do you see the science?”

On the first day, God created physics, brought the mysterious particles and waves that are the grounding of all things tangible into being.

It was good.

On the second day, God brought hydrogen and oxygen molecules into the bonded union that would give texture to the tangible.   On the second day, God created chemistry.

And it was good.

On the third day, God created geology and botany.

He created clay and rock and sand.  He grew palms and pineapples, cocoa and coffee beans.

So you know that day was good.

On the fourth day, God created astronomy.  He dressed Orion in a belt and admired Saturn and said, “If I like it then I better put a ring on it.”

And it was good.

On the fifth day God created zoology.  He made the majestic eagle, the prickly porcupine, and the misconstrued platypus (which is kind of like making lunch out of the whatever leftovers you find in the refrigerator.)

But it was still good.

On the 6th day, God created anthropology. He created little minds to contemplate the great mind, hearts to feel, fingers to reach out in need and in fear and in love.

And it was so good.

And on the 7th day he created philosophy, the mother of all sciences, a day on which to contemplate it all.

A thinking God created thinking beings to bear a thinking faith.  People of God, the world gains nothing from Christian cowards who turn off their brains when they hear ideas that scare them.

Evolution and God

If God wanted to bring about humanity through millions of years of evolution, who is the clay to tell the potter how to do his work? God can bring about his creation in any way he should do.  And Bible verses about the beginning of humanity shouldn’t silence scientists any more than Bible verses about the sun stopping in the sky.

If what the church offers to society is fear and ignorance, the church deserves to be ignored.

If evolution is wrong, that should be a scientific decision, and scientists should be open to all questions.  Scientists like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are making a case for why they think Darwinism is insufficient to explain the fossil record and the intricacies of biology.  Even atheist scholars like Thomas Nagel believe Darwinism is insufficient to explain life.  But let that be a debate for the learned, and if you want to be a part of the debate, study the issue before you speak, unlike so many Christians whose approach is “Panic first, ask questions later.” But the Bible doesn’t require a rejection of evolution, and fearful arguments to the contrary do not honor Jesus.

Hospitals and Schools

Look at how much good Christians have done when they have embraced empirical science as a tool to honor God.

The great universities of Europe and America, the Oxfords and the Harvards, were founded by Christians who believed that God’s fingerprints were all over the world, and the work of God was worth studying.  They believed that by advancing knowledge they were honoring the work of God and doing what God wanted.

The great hospitals and modern medicine were founded by Christians who wanted to heal broken bodies, believing that alongside prayer, and not instead of it, God had given us tools to understand and repair the physical world.

Furthermore, great scientists have embraced faith.

Isaac Newton, who postulated the gravitational constant, wrote more about Christianity than science.

Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, preached sermons at his church.

Louis Pasteur, who made milk drinkable, said that he prayed while he worked.

Lord Kelvin, who formulated the laws of thermodynamics, gave lectures defending the Christian faith.

Francis Collins, modern leader of the human genome mapping project, calls Jesus his Lord and Savior.

Faith has never flourished by hiding its head in the sand. People of faith ought to embrace the honest explorations of the scientific community, and the scientific community ought to be open towards honest exploration of the story of Jesus.

I remember going to a church camp when I was in high school, a fiery Baptist camp held in deep in the woods in the Texas hills, so that you could not get away.  And I remember asking a guest preacher a string of questions about faith and science.  Midway through my questions he got tired, and just scolded me, “Sometimes you just need to stop asking questions and believe.”

That’s a bunch of trash.  Pursuit of truth leads to Jesus, and if you stop asking questions, you won’t end up at Jesus, you’ll end up with an idol.

Believing Thomas

Look at how Jesus treated questions when they came from one of his own disciples.

JOHN 20

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas is not an enemy of the faith.  Thomas is merely a scientist.

Jesus’ message to Thomas isn’t scolding, it’s giving Thomas the empirical evidence that he’s asked for.   Stop doubting and believe – because I’ve now given you sufficient evidence to stop doubting.

Don’t be afraid of where the pursuit of truth will lead you if you believe in the guy who said, “I am the truth.” To pursue truth is to pursue Jesus.

If you want something to be afraid of, I’ll give you something to be afraid of.  If you raise your kids with a kind of fundamentalism that requires them to hide their heads in the sand, one day your kids will get out in the world, and they will listen to the news, they will talk to their peers, they may go to college, and they will realize that brilliant minds have come to believe in things that are different than what they’ve heard from you.  If you tell them that the Christian faith hangs on their rejection of the findings of science, you will put them in the position of holding onto ideas so rigidly that their ideas will one day break them.  Kids aren’t leaving the faith because of Darwinism.  They’re leaving the faith because parents, churches, and pastors are telling them that Christianity and science are opposed to one another, and they have to choose either science or Christianity.  They’re going to choose the one that is most serious about the pursuit of truth.

Shouldn’t that be the Church? Shouldn’t we be the ones who love truth more than our secular friends?

Let me remind you of a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you will be faithful.

Six Signs of Calling

 

Calling.png

When I’m seeking to discern what God is calling me to, there are a few biblically-based signs that tell me really clearly that I’m on the right path.  For anyone who is searching for a job, praying over a move, or considering a significant change, these are worth reviewing.

The places to which we are called usually involve these six factors.

  1. Joy: Calling brings you joy.  Jesus said that he promises us abundant life.  The guy who turned water into wine at a wedding isn’t amassing an army of the miserable. (John 2:1-12, John 10:10)
  2. Service: While calling brings us joy, it’s something that we do to make the world a better place, and specifically to love other people.  This ensures that the joy calling brings us is not merely selfishness, and that we don’t gain the world only to lose our souls. (Mt. 16:24-27)
  3. Gifting: Calling uses the gifts that God has given us.  Some people are made to be teachers, some to be administrators, some to heal and some to help.  Calling employs exactly that mix of tools that we carry in our belts.  It shows us that we were made for a purpose and that we serve a valuable role in the world. (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12, Eph. 4)
  4. Inadequacy: Despite the fact that we may be gifted for calling, a true calling from God is always bigger than we could handle on our own.  God told Gideon to whittle down his army to the point that it was unwise to enter into battle, and that inadequacy served to prevent Gideon from taking credit when he actually won. (Jdg. 7)
  5. Confirmation: The community around you, the people who know you best, ought to confirm that you’re on the right path.  Our friends sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.  To forge ahead when everyone around us tells us we’re on the wrong path is foolhardy.  It’s exactly like dating.  When friends tell someone that she’s dating the wrong guy, the friends are always right.  She may say, “You just don’t know him like I do.  He told me that when he plays video games all day, he’s only thinking of me.” But the friends can see the situation objectively, and if the friends say, “no,” the friends know what they’re talking about. (Gal. 2:1-3)
  6. Commitment: Nonetheless, calling is that thing you’re going to do no matter what.  Even if no one around you confirmed it, it’s that thing you can’t live without doing.  There is a church denomination that used to ask its pastoral candidates one final question before they could be ordained.  After batteries of tests, exams, theological essays, and psychological interviews, the last question each candidate was asked was, “If we told you we wouldn’t ordain you, what would you do?” There was only one acceptable answer, and every candidate was expected to say the same thing in a sort of litany.  “I’ll preach it anyway,” was the correct response.  Calling is like that.  I’ll do it no matter what. (Gal. 1:11-17)

So those are the six criteria I use to evaluate whether or not I’m on the right path as I pursue my calling.  As you can see, they exist in three pairs, and each of the two members of each pair stand in tension with one another: joy but service, gifts but inadequacy, confirmation but commitment.  It’s in exactly that tension that calling seems to balance.  I’ve encouraged a lot of people to pray over these six things when they make decisions.  I’d encourage you to as well, or share it with a friend who is making big decisions.

 

 

2019, Six Signs of Calling, James W. Miller

I Hate My Job

Recently, I found myself in two different conversations with guys who hated their jobs. One of them has been trying desperately to stay afloat, moving from position to position and working at all hours to try to make ends meet.  The other was fairly successful in an engineering career, but had a nagging longing to do something else and a feeling that life was passing him by.  I noticed that both of them said the same words, “I hate my job,” but there was a significant discrepancy between them. I also knew that I loved my own work, and I wondered at the differences between us.

I think there are four ways to approach work, or perhaps four stages of work through which we mature.

First, we can approach work as a means to an end, that being survival.  Work is there to provide resources for ourselves and those we hold closest.  When that’s the case, work never has intrinsic value. The goal is to have enough, and that goal is almost never met, because the costs of life are always compounding and don’t let us rise to the comfortable nonchalance we anticipate.

nik-shuliahin-251237-unsplash

Second, we can approach work as a means to a different end, that being success.  We seek to be productive to the point that we are recognized and compensated. Our goal is to expand and to potentially be the best.  In this case, likewise, the goal is never  achieved. There is always more to accomplish. There is always someone doing better.  Some people stay stuck in this stage, because they never get a vision more compelling than a competition for trophies.

However, third, we might approach work as something sacred, an end in itself.  The value of meaningfully pursuing our calling and treating daily interactions with the people we encounter as divinely appointed intersections transcends the tangible rewards of work.  We may enjoy the fruit of our labor, but not despite the labor; we enjoy the cycle of contribution and participation. I see people in their 50s who are content with their careers make this shift, and the specificity of their chosen field starts to look peripheral to their enjoyment of work.  You kind of suspect this person could be happy in any number of jobs, because it isn’t the job that’s making them happy.

…it’s a shame to hate your job.  The marketplace will tell you a career change is the corrective, but in fact, we have to change how we see career.

 

Ultimately, we want to find our way to the place where work is a secondary expression of compassion.  I think if there is anyone truly happy in the world, it’s this person. It’s the one who wakes up with the aim of loving someone, or many someones, and work is simply a practical outpouring of that love.  The exchange of goods in the marketplace becomes an excuse for being a presence and a voice in the marketplace. Educators, medical professionals, and non-profit managers perhaps cross-over to this most naturally, but it’s available to everyone.

All that to say, it’s a shame to hate your job.  The marketplace will tell you a career change is the corrective, but in fact, we have to change how we see career.

The Letter and the Spirit

bible

The contemporary American Church has forgotten itself, both the letter and the Spirit.

There are three contending voices in the modern Church concerning the letter, concerning the role of Scripture in the Church.  First, the letter has been lost among modern megachurches who forego exegesis to such a degree that it is not clear how, if at all, the Bible undergirds the proclamation of the church.  The text is at most a theme upon which the pastor riffs, a pastor whose voice trumps that of Scripture.  His tone and content need not reflect those of the letter; the Bible is there only as a source of material among the many anecdotes from the pastor’s family life, his sporting loves, and illustrations clearly mined from some website.  Were one to only learn the Bible from these pastors, one might reasonably assume the book is a practical guide to successful work and marriage, a therapeutic relief to stress and anxiety, and a promise of material rewards that are just around the corner.

I listened to a great big pastor in a great big church not long ago who said he “had enough people in the cheap seats.” It was time for serious discipleship, he insisted.  His only text for the next 45 minutes was John 3:16, which he read and then never mentioned to again.  I came to realize that the reference to the cost of the seats was meant to point out that many people attended but didn’t tithe.

These churches have largely surpassed and replaced the second voice, the dying stream of liberal Protestantism which practiced a sleight-of-hand exegesis, using the Bible, but only so as to give the educated the clergy the opportunity to cleverly reveal that it didn’t mean what it seemed to say.  Mainline Protestantism is now settling into a well-deserved retirement.

Third, the last refuge of the Bible is American fundamentalism.  Unfortunately, what we find here tends to be the people who know the words but not the meaning.  They want to debate how long were the days of creation and whether or not life could have evolved, just as their predecessors were energized against the heliocentric universe.  Here, conversation is consumed by creed.  They read the Bible, but only so they can weaponize it.

We’ve forgotten that the Bible is God’s word, and thus it’s worth learning.  We’ve forgotten that it’s living and active, rather than static and dogmatic.

Likewise, the Church has forgotten the Spirit.  The early church spread for one reason – Jesus was a wonder-worker.  People weren’t traveling for miles to hear a good speaker; they were coming to see paralytics walk.  People weren’t praying to make themselves feel better; they were praying because someone was answering back.  They were sufficiently convinced that God was present that they gave away their money with reckless abandon.  Honestly, what might it take for you to do something like that?  It takes a miracle.

I envision a church of the letter and the Spirit, where we embrace the Scriptures enough to care about what they say to us, and the way they say it.  I envision a church where miracles come to be as natural as they are super.  And I don’t think any of this is unreasonable or far-fetched.  I think this is what Jesus meant from the very beginning.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Dressed for Heaven

-excerpted from “It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church”

I discovered that the work of justice still needed to take place in my life when I was questioned by a Black friend of mine.  “What’s the experience of being White in America?” he asked me.

I shrugged.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s the experience of being White in America,” he told me.

320px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit.jpgI can now answer the question.  The experience of being White in America is comfortable apathy.  It’s not necessarily malice or stereotyping.  It’s the mere disregard for the fact that you are benefiting from a system which disadvantages others.  The sense of nonchalance in the face of the struggle of a minority, the passive negligence of the other who must work against tougher odds, is the modern face of racism.  We may not have separate bathrooms, but we still have separate possibilities.

Justice is that outward movement of love from a simple compassion for others towards a determination to create compassionate systems and structures.  Love seeks to build a home for the homeless.  Justice seeks to stop future generations from experiencing homelessness.  The blueprint of heaven is not merely for an individualized faith that makes one a better person.  It is a plan for a better world.

Justice means living as though by a set of laws no one else has read.  Becoming a citizen of a new kingdom means living by the laws of that kingdom, even it if is still only a kingdom to come.  It is when employment is free of gender bias, when education is free of political slant, when relationships are founded in respect, society is awash with civility, and classism gives way to abundant generosity that it becomes clear the kingdom of heaven is infecting the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus told us to look for signs of it – that the lame would walk, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.  Is it any less supernatural when unjustly shackled are free to run, the prejudicially blind are awakened to clarity, and the apathetically deaf become compassionate?  These are the signs that the kingdom under construction is coming to be.

The call of Christians is to begin to live by the rules of the kingdom that is to come instead of by the rules of the kingdoms we’ve inherited.

Standing in the Chicago airport, I was bundled in multiple sweaters, coats, and undershirts.  I had been summoned to be a groomsman in a frigid January wedding (for which I never forgave the groom).  I couldn’t wait to get back to my home in Hawaii.  Standing across the terminal from me was an older couple dressed in matching aloha wear, which, in Hawaii, is the equivalent of writing “tourist” on your forehead.  I couldn’t resist walking up to them and asking, “So where you headed?”

They almost shouted, “We’re going to Hawaii!” Of course they were, and everything about them said that they were, from their audacious outfits to their beaming smiles.  They knew where they were going, and they couldn’t wait to get there, so much so that they had already dressed for it.  They dressed themselves in such a way that no one could miss what they were doing, even if someone might be prompted to make fun of them.  And making fun of them wouldn’t have dampened their spirits, because their destination was just that appealing.

Shouldn’t it be that way with the people of heaven?  Shouldn’t we be so dressed for our destination that no one could miss it, so excited about our travels that it just oozes out of us?  The kingdom of heaven is so compelling that we can’t wait till we get there; we have to start living it here.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.

 

A Christmas Miracle

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Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.

#RLLA