Faithful Learning in Philosophy

Back in the mid-1980s when I was cutting my teeth as a student of philosophy, it was common to hear Christians worry aloud about the wisdom of studying in that area.  Why expose yourself to so many godless thinkers and dangerous ideas?  And isn’t philosophy about relying entirely on your own ability to reason rather than on the wisdom of God?  I recall how as a college student I would sometimes struggle to defend what I was doing, though it seemed clear to me at the time that I was essentially following a divine call into the field.  Now, three decades hence, it is gratifying to see the impact that Christians have had in the field of academic philosophy since my college days.  In my latest book, Philosophy: Faithful Learning (P&R Publishing), I discuss just this.
In the book—which is actually so short as to be more like a lengthy pamphlet—I review several of the major contributions that Christian philosophers (such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Marilyn McCord Adams, William Alston, Linda Zagzebski, Robert Roberts, and William Lane Craig, to name just a few) have made to the field.  These thinkers have profoundly impacted contemporary philosophy, not just in philosophy of religion but also in epistemology, ethics and other sub-fields of the discipline.  Their work also powerfully demonstrates how real wisdom can be gleaned from careful, Christ-centered philosophical exploration into ultimate questions.  So if you’ve never done much reading in philosophy or are curious about what it means to do “Christian philosophy,” I invite you to check it out.  Just please don’t ask me why the publisher put Karl Marx on the cover.  Some questions are beyond my pay grade even as an academic philosopher.

Getting High with Strippers

Normally summer is my time to kick back with the kids and be the happy-go-lucky mom we all wish I could be year around. We pay less attention to bed times, brush fewer teeth and let the laundry pile up. We spend our days at the “lake,” the kids swimming and me trying not to look too anti-social while catching up on my pleasure reading. We sit through and participate in a lot of ball games, eat too many meals out of plastic wrap and general fun ourselves into oblivion.

But not this summer. This summer, when not developing a permanently flat behind at the ballpark, I have been getting high in our garage. That’s right, getting high…with strippers no less. No, I have not taken up pole dancing and G-strings. I have been tackling furniture restoration. We are remodeling our kitchen this summer and like fools said to ourselves, “Who wants to go and buy some cheap piece of poorly constructed particle board when we can restore pieces that are original to the house?” Not us. Why would we want to take the easy way out when doing things the hard way is so much, well, harder?

About halfway through the month of June I would have gladly pulled something out of the neighbor’s trash if it meant we could take off those horrible rubber gloves and breathe clean air for a while. But since I didn’t spy any dumpster diving pieces on our block, I kept going. I learned a lot in the process. Maybe it was all those fumes, but as I worked I found a lot of parallels between the work of restoring furniture and the work of restoring my soul. Here are a few things I picked up along the way:

  • Getting the first layer off is always the easiest. There are few things more satisfying than brushing on a fat coat of paint stripper and watching 70’s era, olive green disaster buckle and crack. It scrapes off like a dream and you start thinking “This is going to be a piece of cake.” Right—cake that will take hours of your life and several layers of your skin. The outside is easy but it’s what lies underneath which requires the most work to get rid of. That second layer takes patience and lots of elbow grease. Sometimes you even need to take a break. Let you and your furniture rest a bit before you go back at it. It’s the same with sanctifying our souls. Those outward bad habits are much easier to leave behind than the ones that lie hidden and close to the heart. Those are the ones that take perseverance.
  • Things generally get worse before they get better. I would spend several days stripping a piece of furniture only to realize that I had just make it look ten times worse than it looked before I started. Doesn’t that also seem true of working on ourselves? You dedicate more time to Bible reading only to realize through that reading that your plight is even worse than you thought. Or you begin praying for help in overcoming a particular bad habit only to experience failure in that area even more than usual. But you have to trust the process. You have to believe that it will work and keep going. I reached a point in several projects over the last few weeks when I really didn’t think I could do it. But the only thing that appealed to me less than going forward was giving up. And that was usually the point where suddenly I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. In our spiritual lives, the darkness does not want us to succeed and thus tempts us to despair. But I also think God wants to strengthen us for even greater work and lets us struggle, never more than we can bear, but struggle nonetheless.
  • Perfection isn’t without its scars. Even when “finished” I can see the bits of paint I couldn’t get off or the scratches that refused to be sanded away. It would be easy to obsess over those imperfections and to feel as though I failed to get the job done. But that’s part of the beauty of restoring something old. You can read its story in those bits of paint and scratches. Just like you can read my story in the scars I carry, inside and out. Someday, my story on earth will be finished. God will be finished working on me here. I will be made perfect, all the old and ugly taken away and made new and beautiful. But I don’t think that means I will be without scars. After all, the hands that greet me will be scarred as well. And they will be beautiful indeed.

Thoughts on Fasting

Recently I completed a three-day fast, so I thought it might be a good idea to share a few thoughts about fasting, which I hope may be helpful both to those who are novices and those who are veterans at the practice.

Fasting is one of the “spiritual disciplines” historically practiced by Christians (and persons of other faiths as well).  In his classic work on the topic, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard defines the “spiritual disciplines” as “activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken to bring … our total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.”  There are many spiritual disciplines, and they are sometimes distinguished in terms of those involving abstinence of some sort (e.g., solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those involving certain kinds of engagement (e.g., study, worship, celebration, service, meditation, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

All of these disciplines are rooted in scripture and effective for spiritual growth, but some are more important than others.  The discipline of fasting is especially powerful for building self-control.  It was regularly practiced by numerous biblical figures (e.g., Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, and, of course, Jesus and his disciples), important Christian leaders and theologians since biblical times (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney), and many other religious leaders and philosophers (e.g., Zoroaster, Confucius, Hippocrates, the Buddha, Mohammed, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle).  However, fasting is not a popular discipline among Christians in our culture today.  This is unfortunate, given the benefits of fasting, particularly in building the strength to withstand the various temptations of indulgence that are so prevalent in our times.

So what exactly is fasting?  Fasting involves intentional abstinence from food, and possibly drink, for the sake of spiritual growth.  It can be extended to other contexts (e.g., technology, recreation, etc.) and can be applied to particular foods (e.g., meat, coffee, sweets, etc.).  As for the benefits of fasting, they include the following:

  • Fasting builds moral strength through the practice of self-control.  Like any other virtue (or “fruit of the Spirit”), self-control is a moral skill that one develops through practice.  Fasting is one of the more effective ways to nurture this virtue.
  • Fasting trains us to maintain our spiritual focus through suffering.  Denying oneself food is uncomfortable, perhaps even extremely so depending on how long and thorough the fast.  Training the mind to focus on God through such discomfort is a tremendous preparation for doing so when facing other (i.e., non-voluntary) forms of suffering.
  • Fasting makes a statement of our moral-spiritual earnestness.  Whenever I fast, I ask God to receive my practice of abstinence from physical nourishment as a declaration of my need for spiritual nourishment and strengthening.  Thus, when accompanied with prayer, fasting is makes this plea especially emphatic, which I believe God honors in special ways.
  • Fasting is humbling.  My wife once observed that, ultimately, fasting is not so much about food as it is about pride.  I’ve been practicing this discipline for about fifteen years, and it never stops being difficult, which of course shows me how weak, dependent and desperately needy I am.  That’s a blow to pride.  And that’s always good medicine for the soul.
  • Fasting reminds us that our bodily comforts are not what is most important.  And in our materialistic, self-indulgent society, that’s a reminder we all constantly need.

These are just some of the benefits of fasting.  When you fast, you will no doubt discover other benefits as well.

So what are some good occasions for fasting?  Fasting doesn’t call for any special occasions since, like prayer and Bible study, it can be incorporated into the normal rhythm of one’s spiritual life (e.g., weekly or monthly).  But in scripture we find certain occasions where fasting seems to be especially appropriate:

  • Seeking God’s forgiveness – Lev. 23:27 (Day of Atonement); 1 Sam. 7:2-6 (Israel’s repentance of idol worship); Jonah 3 (the repentance of Ninevah); Acts 9:1-9 (the apostle Paul’s repentance)
  • Seeking God’s counsel or blessing – Acts 13:2-3 (the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas); Acts 14:21-23 (Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning of elders at the churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch)
  • Seeking God’s strength – Matt. 4:1-2 (Jesus fasted when “he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil”); Matt. 17:20 & Mark 9:29 (in some manuscripts Jesus says “this kind can come out only by prayer and fasting”)

When discussing fasting, some people express concern about certain abuses.  For example, what about those who have eating disorders?  And what about the temptation to legalism?  In response, I note that the distortion of a good thing does not justify our throwing it out.  Sex, prayer, worship, and even religion itself are constantly abused, but we don’t properly reject those things.

But regarding those with eating disorders, they may be advised to avoid fasting for a while, to do so only with accountability, or to practice only selective fasting (e.g. refraining from sweets, meats, or other particular foods).

Lastly, if you are just starting out, I recommend doing a few short fasts—one or two meals—several times before going on to longer fasts.  And, as for further reading, check out Richard Foster’s chapter on Fasting in Celebration of Discipline.  This classic work is chock full of practical wisdom about all of the spiritual disciplines, but the chapter on fasting is especially good.


Here are a few articles I’ve found interesting lately:

1. Does pornography use case brain damage?  Or, in any case, is there a correlation between porn usage and abnormally low brain activity?  Take a look at this.  Not that we needed any more motivation to avoid porn.

2. “Tradition is an absolutely essential part of the Christian faith.  It is one of the highest authorities we have as a community of Jesus followers.”  That’s what Brandon Peterson says in his recent piece “Why We Cannot Give Up Tradition” which serves as a welcome counter to the anti-traditionalism so prevalent in evangelical circles.

3. What is Father’s Day like for boy raised by lesbians?  Robert Oscar Lopez knows the experience very well, since this is the situation in which he grew up.  Check out his fascinating and insightful reflections about it here.

4. What makes something funny?  That’s a timeless and even serious question.  Leading theories explain why certain things are funny but can’t explain why other things are not funny.  So Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab, offers the “benign violation” theory to explain this and provide a unified account of humor.  Check it out in this Slate article.


Brief comments on film by Amy.
Some old, some new.  Domestic films and foreign too.


12 Years A Slave — I have to admit I went into this one a little warily, thinking that perhaps the ever-skewed-towards-the-politically-correct Academy Award process had gotten it wrong. But they certainly didn’t get this one wrong. Well-acted and beautifully filmed. A story worth telling. Having read the book, I wish the filmmakers had chosen to emphasize Solomon Northup’s deep faith as well as the faith of one of Adobe Photoshop PDFhis master’s particular but that would be like wishing Channing Tatum would make one movie in which he doesn’t take his shirt off. Not gonna happen. Highly recommend the book by the same name (12 Years A Slave, not Channing Tatum Makes a Movie and Doesn’t Take His Shirt Off).

The Book ThiefThis book stole my hurt (pardon the pun) and the movie certainly upheld the quality of the novel. A perfect example of historical context enriching an individual story without one overshadowing the other. Highly recommend both the book and film.

Don JonWhere is the soul cleanser when you need it? Really thought this film was going to make a serious point about porn (and romantic comedy) and it’s destructive influence. Not so much. If this film’s makers were genuinely interested in making that point, maybe they should have included less actual porn in the movie. Fast-forwarded significant portions and still regret having watched it. I think this is the moment when I say any film which includes Julianne Moore is not for me.

The Invisible WomanHuge fan of Charles Dickens’s work, but like so many before (and after) him, he was such a disappointment in his personal life. This movie was equally disappointing. Departing from the traditional “Older man abandons family for passionate affair with younger woman” format, this film went for “Older man abandons family for a younger woman whose family forces her into an affair against The_Invisible_Woman_posterher will but don’t be too sad for her because at least she got to be an inspiration for her favorite author.” It felt as though the writer and director couldn’t decide what Nelly’s feelings were, for Dickens or her husband, so they just left the audience to guess. This was more like The Undefined Woman.

American HustleBiggest disappointment this year. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. Well acted by everyone but (I hate to say it) Jennifer Lawrence, who seemed out of her depth especially with regard to her accent. Just didn’t buy it.

In A World — Can’t remember what made me rent this one, but whatever the reason, I am so glad I did. This flick made me realize how long it had been since I had really enjoyed a movie. It wasn’t heavy or educational; it was just enjoyable. Smart and clever.

Heaven is For RealFor Mother’s Day, we usually have lunch out and go for a bike ride, but with only five bikes and three flat tires, we went to the movies this year instead. We gave the kids a choice between this and the new Captain America. I have to confess I was leaning toward Captain America and had very low expectations for this film. It was certainly better than I expected and made for lots of great conversation with the kids afterwards. Plus we used our movie rewards and managed to get two drinks and a popcorn for $6! A bit flat in parts but Connor Corum, who plays Colton, brings amazing authenticity and life to every scene.

The Sexual Pluralist Revolution: Reasons to be Skeptical

In the United States the last generation has seen a decisive move away from the Judeo-Christian sexual norms that have reigned in the West for centuries.  This shift has involved a move toward sexual pluralism, the view that any sexual behavior is morally permissible so long as it takes place between mutually committed adults.  This is nothing short of revolutionary, as it constitutes a radical and abrupt change of practice and moral perspective.  This should be troubling to anyone who prizes the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, because it flouts both natural law and biblical teaching on sexuality.  But it is also troubling for non-theological reasons.  Here I will consider several reasons why we should be especially skeptical of the rise of sexual pluralism.  I will give special attention to homosexual conduct both because this issue is so heavily emphasized by sexual pluralists and because it is now a point of controversy within some Christian communities.

One reason to be skeptical of sexual pluralism is that this movement has not been driven by rational argument, unlike other revolutionary developments such as the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the abolitionist movement.  Rather, the sexual pluralist revolution has been powered by postmodern relativism, pop culture influences, and a confused view of tolerance that is really a disguised form of dogmatism.

Many say the sexual pluralists do have an argument, specifically the argument from nature—science has proven that our sexual orientation is innate, not under one’s control.  Yet here is another reason to be skeptical of sexual pluralism.  The so-called argument from science is spurious.  No credible studies have proven a biological basis for homosexual orientation.  Some cite the LeVay or Bailey-Pillard studies of the early 1990s, but these are seriously flawed.  Moreover, even if there were a genetic or congenital disposition toward homosexual attraction, this proves nothing regarding whether homosexual practice is ever morally appropriate.  For even if homosexual orientation is biologically determined, this does not imply that such people must choose to behave accordingly or that they are not morally culpable for their sexual choices.  To insist so is to embrace hard determinism, the view that since human choices are caused we are neither free nor morally responsible for our behavior.  The fact that sexual pluralists must appeal to such deterministic thinking shows how thin their rational grounds are.

A third reason that Christians should be skeptical of sexual pluralism is the fact that significant disagreement about the issue within the Church is historically unprecedented.  Never before the last generation was there ever serious debate among Christian theologians or ethicists regarding the moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior.  In fact, there has been considerably more debate about such fundamental doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ than there has been about this.  Other sexual issues (e.g., polygamy) have been debated, of course.  But not until the late twentieth century have Christians seriously debated the moral permissibility of homosexual practice.

This leads to a final reason to be skeptical about sexual pluralism: debate in the Church has occurred almost exclusively in North America and parts of Europe.  Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America almost uniformly affirm the traditional view.  Because of this, it is extremely misleading, even ethnocentric, to glibly declare that “Christians are very divided on the homosexuality issue” as some are wont to do.  Consult a typical Christian in Kenya or China or Brazil, and they will shake their heads in disbelief, perhaps even asking “What is wrong with American Christians that they could actually disagree about this issue?”  Good question.

For these reasons Christians are well-advised to hold fast to the historic Judeo-Christian sexual ethic.  In the coming years, doing so will be increasingly difficult, since this will demand a firm resolve to resist cultural currents.  Those on the side of biblical orthopraxy will be dismissed or, worse, persecuted.  And although sexual pluralism has no rational grounds—theologically, historically, or scientifically—it might be useless to resist with rational argument.  For a view which rises to prominence by abandoning reason can hardly be defeated through the use of reason.

John Hick and Human Progress

An interesting philosophical question concerns whether human beings are making progress.  Great thinkers have fallen on either side of the issue, as you can see here.

Some who take the negative view on this issue use lack of human moral progress as an objection to theism.  After all, wouldn’t God want human beings to improve?  And, being omnipotent, wouldn’t he find a way to ensure that happened?  Thus, the notion that God exists seems to be undermined by the fact that human beings are not making any moral progress.

I happen to agree with the no-moral-progress thesis.  I believe that human beings in the early 21st century are no better, and no worse, than we were a century ago, just prior to the first of two hideous world wars.  And we are no better or worse than we were during the Renaissance, the Dark Ages, or the Iron Age.   From a moral standpoint, human nature has remained constant—since the Fall, anyway—notwithstanding salient eruptions of evil (e.g., the Mongol conquests, the Nazis, etc.) and bursts of goodness (e.g., the birth of the university, the abolition of Western slavery, etc.).

But granting the no-progress thesis regarding the human race generally, it doesn’t follow that there is no significant human moral progress at all.  Just because the human race doesn’t improve as a whole, this doesn’t mean there is no individual progress.  On the contrary, I think such progress is the norm throughout the world.  And it is here that we see the moral work of God on a global scale.

In his classic book Evil and the God of Love, philosopher of religion John Hick insightfully addressed this issue:

Because this is a pilgrimage with in the life of each individual, rather than a racial evolution, the progressive fulfillment of God’s purpose does not entail any corresponding progressive improvement in the moral state of the world. . . .  It is probable that human life was lived on much the same moral plane two thousand years ago or four thousand years ago as it is today.  But nevertheless during this period uncounted millions of souls have been through the experience of earthly life, and God’s purpose has gradually moved towards its fulfillment within each one of them, rather than within a human aggregate composed of different units in different generations. (Evil and the God of Love [Harper & Row, 1966], p. 292)

Hick was a religious pluralist and a universalist, but one need not affirm either pluralism or universalism to see the sense in his proposal here—that God works redemptively in the individual lives of people—perhaps the overarching majority of people worldwide—and this is consistent with the disappointing fact that the human race shows no signs of moral progress.  In fact, Hick even suggests that the lack of aggregate human improvement makes for a better environment for individual moral growth.  After all, as free agents, we all must choose to pursue the good and live faithfully before God, all the while resisting temptation, dealing with strife and disappointment, recuperating from failure, and persevering through suffering in order to do so.  In short, the struggle against evil is precisely how we grow in this world.  This is Hick’s so-called “soul-making” theodicy—an approach to the problem of evil that I find particularly compelling philosophically.  Moreover, it enjoys some biblical support as well, as is evident in such passages as James 1:2-4, Rom. 5:3-4, and 1 Pet. 1:6-7.  While I don’t regard this theodicy as a final and complete solution to the problem of evil, I do think it is an essential part of a Christian response to the problem.

There is also a moral-psychological (or, one might say, existential) benefit in this way of thinking about the human condition.  For if God is ever at work in people, accomplishing his work of redemption in the lives of individuals, then I need not despair over the “current state of the world” or lose hope when considering what appears to be a general moral decline of our society.  Nor should those of us who work to improve human institutions and social structures despair if we see no net improvements.  For God is still at work in the lives of those we meet.  He always has been and he always will be.

On Hatmaker on Marriage

Being critical of popular writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker feels a bit like kicking puppies. If you are unfamiliar with Hatmaker, she is a blogging, self-depreciating, too-much-info sharing pastor’s wife and author of Seven and Interrupted. She manages to be funny and heartfelt all the while sharing her clear desire to see the Gospel impact the world around her. She also has a great collection of oversized earrings that I confess to greatly envy.

Since setting off on my journey to become a published writer, Jen Hatmaker has served as a model for what I would like to achieve; walking that razor-thin line of approachable yet substantive. She is authentic and real but without making excuses or compromising her convictions. Do you sense the giant “but” approaching? Here it comes…

BUT, having enjoyed and been inspired by her writing so much, I was that much more disappointed when I read Hatmaker’s recent blog post regarding World Vision and it’s since reversed decision to allow for the hiring of married gay employees.

It isn’t Hatmaker’s position on gay marriage that disappoints me since her position is unclear. (She has clarified her position in her latest post if you care to know.) What I find so disturbing is her dangerous mischaracterization of the nature of biblical truth and our ability to discern that truth, all in the name of peacemaking.

Hatmaker says “…the Christian community is not going to reach consensus on gay marriage.” I actually disagree with this view since the church has historically been in agreement on this issue for thousands of years. But putting that aside, supposing that we will never agree, in her opinion, mean that we should throw in the towel and just agree to disagree?

What if the early church fathers had taken this approach regarding the biblical canon or heresies that plagued the early church? Should they have simply thrown up their hands and agreed to disagree? Despite her claims that there was a significant lack of agreement among the early church regarding major aspects of the faith, we have hard won creeds and doctrines that have been passed down to us that say differently.

Speaking of the early church fathers, this brings me to my second beef with Hatmaker’s assertions that “we” will never agree. When it comes to the church—and I mean the church beyond 21st century evangelical protestant America—and its view of same-sex marriage, there is actually a larger consensus than she is willing to admit. When one takes into account the whole of the church, through history and across continents, the overwhelming majority comes down on the side of traditional marriage. I find it ironic that too often those who claim to speak for the open-minded crowd neglect the opinions and perspectives of literally billions of believers.

Hatmaker asserts that “Thousands of churches and millions of Christ-followers faithfully read the Scriptures and with thoughtful and academic work come to different conclusions on homosexuality (and countless others). Godly, respectable leaders have exegeted the Bible and there is absolutely not unanimity on its interpretation. There never has been.” This is simply not true. It isn’t true of homosexuality and it isn’t true of any of the major tenets of the Christian faith. If it were, we wouldn’t be a single religion but rather a collection of sects.

Has there been disagreement among certain traditions regarding issues such as baptism, predestination, and more culturally relevant issues such as slavery and the role of women? Absolutely. But there is also a rich history of common ground that as Christians we all enjoy and should fight, yes fight, to defend.

I absolutely agree with Jen Hatmaker that the world needs to see the Church work through these issues with love and respect. I just don’t want to see us sacrifice what is true in the name of let’s-all-just-get-alongitus. For then, if we allow the truth to slip away while we are too busy making nice with one another, what will we have to offer a lost and dying world? What Good News will there be left to tell?

We must wrestle with the truth and with one another not in order to prove we’re right or win points for our side. We must preserve it in order to give it to those who so desperately need it. The truth is there to be discovered and in the end it will set us all free.

From Christianity to Atheism?

When reading or hearing the stories of atheists, certain patterns tend to emerge.  One standard account goes like this:  I was a devout Christian but along the way became dissatisfied with certain aspects of my faith.  As I learned more about the Bible I realized that it is loaded with problems.  After examining it more closely, I concluded that it is horribly unreliable and really just a bunch of made up stories, essentially religious fairy-tales.  This realization, combined with all of the hypocrisy I witnessed among Christians, essentially spelled the end of my faith.  So now I’m a completely fulfilled atheist.  Examples of this basic story abound on the Internet, such as here and here.

Now there are a few things about this journey to un-faith paradigm that bother me and that from a rational standpoint don’t add up.  For one thing, it strikes me as odd that so many atheists moved directly from giving up Christianity to giving up theism.  The Christian faith is just one of three major brands of theism (along with Judaism and Islam).  To falsify one form of this general religious perspective is not to falsify it in all of its forms.  After rejecting Christianity, why not look into one of the other major versions of theism?  Perhaps such atheists will insist that in discovering the Bible is a book of fairy tales they have basically discovered that all religions “of the book” (in this case, all three including the Old Testament) are baseless.  But, then, we may ask, why limit one’s theistic alternatives to these three traditions?  Why not consider generic theism or a non-religious philosophical theism such as that espoused by the likes of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle?—at least until one has thoroughly reviewed the evidences for God.  Some thinkers, such as Antony Flew late in his career, have done just this, all the while keeping an open mind about the possibility that the world creator had revealed himself in some special way.

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt
The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

Another unsettling fact about many atheists is their rejection of Jesus Christ, not just as a religious figure or, more specifically, the God-incarnate savior of humankind, but in toto.  That is, in rejecting Jesus Christ as Christians believe in him, one need not also reject his teachings.  One can deny that Jesus is “Lord” but still recognize his wisdom, even philosophical genius, as evident in his many brilliant discourses and parables.  One might even reasonably say that Jesus is a great philosopher.  As Doug Groothuis shows in his fascinating little book On Jesus, the itinerant Nazarene is undeniably a profound and innovative philosophical mind, whatever else he might be.

Suppose a religious tradition emerged which had as a core teaching the notion that Immanuel Kant was divine and somehow God’s envoy to save humanity from our moral faults, such as by assiduously following the Categorical Imperative, praying in Kant’s name, and so on.  Now if I decided, as I think we all should, that Kant is not the savior, would it make sense to also completely disregard him as a philosopher or otherwise ignore his many valuable insights about ultimate questions?  The same might be said of many other great thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, and Plantinga.  The fact that none of these thinkers is divine is no excuse to completely ignore them as philosophers and sources of great wisdom.  In fact, we should study their teachings closely regardless of how they might be misconstrued from a religious standpoint.  Other people’s overestimation of their ultimate identity or moral goodness is no reason to ignore their philosophical genius.  Yet, this is what most atheists and other non-Christians do when it comes to Jesus.  They seem to assume that rejection of him as God-incarnate and/or savior of humanity is tantamount to rejecting him as wise or even as a significant ethicist or philosopher of religion.  But these two things are far from equivalent.

For this reason I often implore Christians-turned-atheists to return to Jesus, if only as a student of the man’s philosophical acumen.  Jesus’ logical skill, ethical teachings, anthropological insights, and cultural criticism (usually aimed at religious leaders, which should please any atheist)—not to mention his rhetorical genius and unparalleled influence on world history—all merit close study.  For these reasons we can all benefit from a better understanding of Jesus, whether we call him Lord or merely a great human thinker.

Celebrating Lent

Happy Fat Tuesday! (a.k.a. the day everyone in our house scrambles to come up with something to give up for Lent and then spends the day doing/eating/watching that thing as much as possible). It’s funny to see each of our personalities come out in how we go about this process. Jim? Knows himself and gives up the same thing nearly every year—sweets. The kids’ strategy? Try to think of something that will sound impressive to their friends but they won’t actually miss all that much (e.g, “Mom, can I give up brushing my teeth for Lent?”) I will give Sam credit for having given up sugary cereal a few year back, given that cereal is just below oxygen and water on his list of life’s necessities.

I usually start thinking about Lent well in advance of its arrival. I know I have found a winner when I think of something and then immediately panic. This, of course, is a good indicator that this is the very thing I should choose, but I will spend the next few weeks saying, “I am not really going to give up that, am I?” Then Lent rolls around and I spend the next 40 days saying, “Whose dumb idea was it to give this up? Oh, wait…it was mine.” This year? My beloved iPad in all it’s app glory will be hitting the shelf ‘til Easter morning at which point I will gorge myself on back episodes of Castle and Antiques Roadshow.

Recently I read a book about life in England during the year 1000, appropriately entitled The Year 1000. The book walks the reader through the calendar year and I found its discussion of Easter particularly fascinating. The people of this time “had encountered the reality of famine.” Their deep connection and dependence on the land made hunger an ever-present specter that haunted their lives. But during Lent, the author says, “Fasting was the church’s way of harnessing hunger to spiritual purposes…Occurring when it did, in the final months of winter when the barns and granaries were getting bare, there was a sense in which Lent made a virtue of necessity.”

I don’t know the physical hunger of my medieval brothers and sisters, but as I survey our country’s, and my own, moral landscape, I see a land plagued by drought and pestilence. I see a land of plenty starving for want of nourishment.

Ironically, in Lent, in this time of abstinence and voluntarily deprivation I find the very nourishment I need. Lent is the time to shake off the covers, take inventory and do some spring cleaning. In the absence of distraction, I feel the glow of God’s presence.

In that sense, Lent isn’t a time of fasting at all. It is an exchange of one food for another; the food which poisons and numbs for the food which nourishes and awakens. My heart’s barn is empty but God is ready and waiting to give me my fill. May you and I be prepared to work for and receive the harvest He has prepared.