Supportive Engagement

“Your indiscretions are worse than mine ANY DAY!”
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When Christians Simply Yell

On behalf of the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation (IABC)
The parent of Coffee With Paul  (CWP):

A chief goal of our gatherings (live or online) is to promote intelligent Christian conversation about our ancient sacred writings. We are pursuing the opportunity of an incredible, lively, open, generous, electrifying, and thoughtful atmosphere of the discussion of biblical texts, concepts, and ideas.

Unfortunately, that is a rare thing among Christians. Far too often, “Christians” won’t sit down at the same table with each other–they just yell across it at each other. Instead of setting an example for the world, they follow the pattern of political radio talk show hosts or of presidential debates—–which in recent times are national scandals, disgraceful, and a sign of baby-rattling self-centeredness on the part of all involved. So Christians end up either fighting or refusing to talk about anything important (thus creating a culture of mindlessness that  is unworthy of the name Christian).

The inability or unwillingness of Christians (often even within their own churches!) to be able to talk to each other and to challenge each other with an open spirit of grace is both longstanding and reprehensible.

What follows are the guidelines (not rules) we have in place for ourselves.  Not because we ourselves feel in any way superior to anyone else;  but only because we feel this is a far superior way.  We commend these kinds of guidelines for all kinds of Christian groups around the world.

What is “Supportive Engagement”?

“Conversation” for us implies a “give and take” among people of good conscience in an atmosphere that we call “supportive engagement.

Supportive Engagementhas two main elements which work together: (1) challenge, and (2) support.

  1. CHALLENGE: Many faith environments avoid “thinking” together because thinking promotes dissension!  However, in our groups we intentionally pursue a thinking environment in which we study together and engage each other for the sake of “iron sharpening iron.” In our group, you are free to advocate any belief or position you like; but you had better be ready to get challenged by someone. Challenge is not only acceptable, it is welcomed. Challenge does not imply being “argumentative” or “obnoxious.” Rather, “challenge” means the intelligent exploration of ideas with one another, especially when we disagree over one or more issues.
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    1. This implies that the challenger is mature enough so as to always try to show appropriate respect to the person he or she is challenging. It is never permissible for a challenger to attack, demean, or impugn the person whom the challenger is approaching. (This is not a presidential debate, and the disgraceful tactics used by childish candidates will not be tolerated here!) Any such attack will be stopped promptly in its tracks, and anyone who will not cooperate may be ushered out of the group altogether. Personal disputes do happen, and those disputes will need to be handled personally off the community discussion board–like two grown-up Christian people. This is a place for invigorating discussion. Mud slinging will not happen here. Following are some examples:
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      1. Appropriate: “I find your argument lacking coherence, especially at two points: (1) . . .”
      2. Inappropriate: “You are obviously incapable of thinking through a problem with any coherence . . .”
      3. Inappropriate: “You’re an idiot!” (Anything close to this will certainly get you called on the carpet, and it will possibly get you thrown out of the group.)
      4. Inappropriate: “You are trying to say . . .” or “You feel x . . . ” or “You think X . . .”  (Don’t tell people what they they think, feel, or are trying to do. Speak your own feelings and let others do that for themselves. This is good manners and it shows respect.”)
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    2. This also implies that the one being challenged is mature enough to know the difference between a personal attack and an appropriate challenge to a position or approach. Misunderstandings can occur, of course, even among mature participants, and sometimes confusion sets in. But being able to receive a challenge with grace is part of what we are about. As long as we keep in mind that we are challenging “issues” and not “people,” we will be able to resolve any misunderstandings and continue.
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    3. This also implies the acceptance of three basic principles of communication:
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      1. The sender always must take responsibility for what he or she says/writes. He or she must work to write/speak in such a way that deals with issues rather than personalities, always in an attempt to respect and NOT to offend another person. It is always appropriate if a sender chooses to reword a statement based on a perceived offense.
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      2. The receiver must take responsibility for how he or she decides to read/hear a statement. He or she must work to not “over-read” any received statement. The fact is, absolutely anything can be misunderstood and inadvertently twisted into something it was not intended to say (even this statement). There is clearly a point at which a sender is not responsible for how a reader may twist or distort a received message.E.g.: The statement: “Offensive comments are not allowed” can be interpreted: “You are accusing me of writing offensive comments!” But it does not even come close to saying that. To assume such a thing may be an aggressive and unwarranted reading on the reader’s part.
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      3. In all cases, it is legitimate for a receiver to ask a sender what is implied by a statement. In this environment, once the sender clarifies the intent, that is the end of the matter. Any response by anyone questioning the sincerity or honesty of a discussion partner will be regarded as a personal attack on that party (for calling that person a liar). This has no place in mature Christian discussion.
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  2. SUPPORT: No matter whether the sender and receiver end up agreeing, in this environment, they make a commitment to end up supporting each other for the sake of community harmony—–even if they disagree in good conscience. (And it is perfectly legitimate for them to state it as such.)
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    1. Appropriate: “Jo and I disagree with one another, yet I respect and laud her attempts to search the scriptures and to explain her position.”
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    2. At all times we resolve to interact with each other openly and honestly in a spirit always of Christian love. We offer support of each other despite particular disagreements over one matter or another.
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    3. We grant to each other that we are all doing the best we can do to understand the scriptures and be honest with ourselves. We grant that it is possible for intelligent people of good conscience to diligently study the Bible and then honestly arrive at different conclusions. We accept that it is NOT a requirement that everybody has to agree with each other in order to support each other.
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WHAT “SUPPORTIVE ENGAGEMENT” IS NOT:__

  1. It is not “agreeing to disagree.” The latter is where all tend to believe whatever we want without any need to discuss or support it.
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  2. It is not any kind of formal debate. (We are not a debating society!)
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  3. It is not a Sunday school class, a counseling session, or a feel-good session where participants tiptoe around each other so that no one will “feel any challenge.” This is honest discussion where we do not wear our feelings on our sleeves and where we support the other in challenging us. There is no promise, here, that you won’t get your feelings hurt! It depends on where you wear your feelings and what you decide to do about it that is important.
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SUMMARY: We advocate an incredible discussion environment! “Supportive Engagement” is just that: Engagement! It refers to an active and willing challenge to one another to sharpen each other. Such an approach is only possible among mature Christian adults who can and do distinguish between (1) intelligent, pointed, and direct challenge (as an actual goal), as opposed to (2) personal attacks, dismissals, or name calling (as is found in presidential debates, a thing of disgrace to everyone and which brings shame to a nation). Christians are to walk by a different set of principles.

Again, these are not rules, but guiding ideas that flow from a principle desire for something better than what the popular political arena offers. What we follow here is a kind of mindset that asks:  “What can we do to engender valuable conversation? How can we help create that and pursue that?”

I do not suggest that this is a perfect outline;  I do suggest that this kind of approach can work. As always, it depends on the people involved.

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

 

“Help Will Not Come from Elsewhere”

I just finished (yesterday) watching the new Cosmos series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I really like this entire series. I plan to watch it several more times. It does a good job of tying into the original series, done by Carl Sagan.

I watched that original series as it came out in 1980 on PBS on Sunday nights. (I was preaching at the time, and I would preach shorter sermons so I could get home in time to watch each new episode.)  Tyson is not the poet Sagan was, and by poet, I don’t mean rhyming schemes;  I mean that Sagan delivered meaningful messages, like the Pale Blue Dot which is still a stirring piece.

I realize that the Pale Blue Dot is old news.  But it is new every time I see it.  I’ve seen this many times and I come back to it often.  It is among my favorite messages of all time given by anyone.  It gives perspective and engenders sober responsibility.  Here the original version of the video portion with the original sound track by Sagan and original music.


As a believer in God, I recommend this video not despite the line, but because of it, when Sagan says

“In all this vastness,
there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere
to save us from ourselves.”

Whatever he intended by this line, I cannot say.  But Sagan was no atheist. He said so bluntly in an interview:

I am not an atheist. An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. I am not that wise . . .

And in another:

“but neither do I consider there to be anything approaching adequate evidence for such a god. Why are you in such a hurry to make up your mind? Why not simply wait until there is compelling evidence?”

He was not an atheist (no matter how much some want him to have been).  Just as clearly, he was not a believer in God (everywhere he spoke, this was abundantly clear, including numerous YouTube videos).  So, his statement was not meant in any spiritual sense.

But I am not interested in pursuing that.  What I am interested in is his line “there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere.”  In the context of his message, he is speaking to the need for human responsibility.  And in that call, all can join–believer and nonbeliever alike.

It is true that—–as believers in God—–we could miss the point and begin trying to refute his statement by quoting texts about God as our help.   Let’s be clear, the scriptures laud that God exists, and that he is in control of all there is (Gen 1-2; Psa 8; 59:13; Dan 5:21;  and many, many more;  I am not disputing this here), and that God will help me or us (Exod 18:4; 2 Sam 23:5; Ps 22:19; 27:9; 33:20 35:2; 40:17; 42:5; 42:11; 43:5; 44:26 59:4; 63:7; 70:5; 94:17; 121:1; 121:2; 124:8 Sir 24:22).

But none of these (or other similar texts) are claims that God will save us in the clear physical sense Sagan was presenting.  As a matter of fact, the scriptures are full of the idea—and we all know this by mere experience—that God has always allowed human beings to get into all of the trouble they are intent on getting into.  The salvation we are promised through faith in Jesus Christ is not a promise that God will step in and make people responsible, or solve our viciousness against each other. Or keep us from going bankrupt. Or from losing our home. Or our jobs. Or our families. Nor is there any promise that he will stop all of our wars. Or corruption. Or destruction. Or crime. Or hatred.  Prayer, hope, trust, and faith are all extremely important concepts, but they do not somehow countermand justice (which is rightness)—i.e., responsibility.

Actually, Sagan was not stating anything in this respect that is not also supported in the scriptures.  As human beings, we need to be responsible!  Sagan’s point was about human responsibility in taking care of where we live. How can we not say “yes” to that?

Unlike Sagan, I am a believer in God and in the value of our ancient holy writings.  And yet, even according to those scriptures, God has always allowed people to be idiots, whether religious or not.  But God has called us, as human beings who follow God, not to be.

The new series (in my opinion) lacks that stirring voice and presence of Sagan. Even so, the new series with Tyson is still a must watch. Especially for Christians. I’ll say more about that next time.

Gary

 

“It Has No Handles”: How Do You See Yourself?

A verse I am drawn to in Isaiah 45 is verse 9.  The overall idea seems to be clear:  the clay should not try to tell the potter his job or sit in judgment about what he has produced.   (Anybody with kids understands this point.)   The context of Isaiah 40-54 helps here, where there is a constant refrain

“For I, I am God, and there is no other!  I am with you!  I have made all things, and I am doing a new thing! I will help you!

In chapter 45, maybe I like the fact that there is a kind of translation problem with verse 9c, not with the words, but that it is possibly an idiom, and so what does it mean?

The Hebrew is straightforward:  “What are you making?  It [or he] has no hands.”
The Greek Isaiah adds a phrase, and changes everything to “you”, but is no clearer:  ““What are you doing, since you are not working, nor do you have hands”?

The KJV and ASV are fairly literal:

KJV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

ASV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

The NIV has the pot asking a question:

NIV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

The NET translates the idiom to “skill” and it makes perfect sense in context:

NET  Isaiah 45:9 One who argues with his creator is in grave danger, one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground! The clay should not say to the potter, “What in the world are you doing? Your work lacks skill!”

I like the NET Bible on this.  However, for personal reasons, I also like the RSV, which I did not list above.

RSV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, `What are you making’? or `Your work has no handles’?

These are several different kinds of translations, and all are legitimate.  Slightly different, yet we get the point.

So why do I like the RSV?  Because it can be understood not only as criticism of God (“you did this wrong”), but a criticism of the self (“you made me wrong, and so your work is bad”).  “It has no handles.”  Here you are looking in the mirror and you know where all the flaws are:  Your bent nose, your lips too thick or thin, your teeth are not what they used to be, your receding hairline, midriff is too . . . well, you get it.  But worse, have you ever noticed how you can look in a mirror and see all of your internal flaws as well?  You are not this or that, not good enough, smart enough, focused enough, devoted enough. You look in the mirror and you say:  “It has no handles.”  (Ok, “love handles” maybe, but don’t ruin this;  stay with me here.)

Most of the time when we look at ourselves and say “It has no handles” we think we mean, “Look how I have let God (or others or both) down.”  But deep down we are criticizing God for not doing “enough” in my case to make me like I should be.

I think it is possible to get the point that “him” (45:9-10), the “rebels” (46:8), and “stubborn-hearted” (46:12) are God’s own people who are not looking in the right places.  But it is harder to see that in not looking in the right places, in not honoring God for his work in you, in looking down on yourself . . . it is like you spending a long time with great effort trying to prepare a great meal, or paint a special picture, or make a special item to give to someone, and when you do, the first thing the person says is, “Well . . . it has no handles, does it!”

“I am God, and there is no other” is what you should see when you look in a mirror.  God has given you life and opportunity.  And God is at work, right now, in you.  Handles and all.

Gary D. Collier

[All quotes are from BibleWorks 9]

 

Halloween: A Different Kind of Outrage

This is Halloween week so we get to hear from well-meaning Christians (once again) the outrage against and denouncement of this particular “holiday” that allows children to dress up as ghosts and goblins—or other horrible creatures (like Elsa of Frozen)—that will surely scar them for life. I’ve always been amused at the “Christian dress up” replacement events held at churches where children can dress up like a “biblical character”—except, of course, the witch at Endor, Jezebel, Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba, Judas, Goliath, Herod, Pilate, Legion, or the Dragon (to mention only a few).

(Ah! But silly me, you can now buy a “Monsters of the Bible” lesson pack to teach your children all about God’s truths, with a proclamation in big bold red letters: “Don’t let God’s Truth Take a Backseat This Halloween!” Only monsters are included. So this leaves the door open for more marketing ideas, like “Despicable People of the Bible” lesson pack. Or, “All the Prostitutes of the Bible,” lesson pack, including the pornographic prostitute sisters—Oholah and Oholibah—of Ezek 23. You could even include patterns for making ancient prostitute clothing!)

Could we at least focus our outrage a bit?

I personally have many fond memories of Halloween as a child. In our town, it was acceptable to dress up and go trick-or-treating every night of the entire week of Halloween (except, only one visit to each house per goblin, please). Our parents didn’t even go with us! We just went out by ourselves at 8, 9, 10, 11 years old! We got in no trouble, we had a lot of fun.

I realize that times have changed and also all of the evil some people do with such a holiday; but if we are to abandon every activity because of how some people turn it into evil, then every church would shut down overnight never to open its doors again.

Oh, and speaking of doors and the evil in churches, this brings me to a different kind of outrage that I myself always associate with this time of year. For this week in 2014 marks year 497 since a monumental occurrence. On October 31, 1517—All Hallows’ Eve—Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church against the practice by the Catholic Church (at that time) of the sale of indulgences (a way of buying forgiveness of sins and not having to go to confession). The date (October 31) was not an accident but well chosen: for All Hallows’ Eve (or All Saints’ Eve) was the eve before a religious holiday influenced by pre-Christian practices dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. (This is still celebrated in some countries.) The 95 theses railed against the sale of indulgences which granted forgiveness of sins and even release from purgatory—and this had everything to do with the dearly departed.

Look at this description, which comes right off of Wikipedia:

As part of a fund-raising campaign commissioned by Pope Leo X to finance the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, began the selling of indulgences in the German lands. Albert of Mainz, the Archbishop of Mainz in Germany, had borrowed heavily to pay for his high church rank and was deeply in debt. He agreed to allow the sale of the indulgences in his territory in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Martin Luther was apparently not aware of this. Even though Luther’s prince, Frederick III, and the prince of the neighboring territory, George, Duke of Saxony, forbade the sale of indulgences in their respective lands, people in Wittenberg traveled to purchase them. When these people came to confession, they presented their plenary indulgences for which they paid, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins, since the document promised to forgive all their sins. Luther was outraged that they had paid money for what was theirs by right as a free gift from God. He felt compelled to expose the fraud that was being sold to the people. This exposure was to take place in the form of a public scholarly debate at the University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses outlined the items to be discussed and issued the challenge to any and all comers. (see full article)

For Luther, the monsters, despicable people, and whores were the church leaders who concocted and promoted this evil scheme.

Martin Luther's 95 ThesesYou can yourself read a translation of the 95 theses here. Among my favorite are #10 and 11:

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

If you read these 95 Theses, you will likely be struck with how foreign the problem sounds from anything you deal with on a daily basis (although clearly, corruption is an ever present thing). It is a great example how we can become so wrapped up in our own interpretations of things and with things that have nothing to do with the Bible that we can no longer see the Bible itself or Jesus himself.

It is always good for us to be on guard. But let us be reasonable people in the process.

Gary

 

A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

Theological Tartar

This is more of a personal posting.  This morning I received an email from someone I’ve never met in reply to my recent post on aliens.  However, this letter then turns to a question of a more personal search for truth.  So, I want to share this letter verbatim without the name of the person who wrote it.  If he or she wishes to “own” the letter, that is up to that person.  The idea of “theological tartar” to describe traditional religious baggage will show up at the very end of my reply.

The Letter

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Monday, August 4, 2014 10:01 AM
To: garydcollier@coffeewithpaul.com
Subject: RE: Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

Good morning Gary,

Thanks so much for sharing this article. I have not seen the complete email from Mr. Ham. But I would venture to say that it possibly falls into the same category as many other so called Christian viewpoints (i.e. does more harm than good). It is very frustrating when someone tries to speak for all “Bible believing Christians”. Unfortunately it tends only to give more ammo against what I believe is the very logical argument for the truth of the Bible and the case for God & Jesus specifically. Once again, I appreciate you passing your thoughts along.

On a separate subject… I am curious where your thinking falls, with respect to many of the opinions of men such as Edward Fudge and Al Maxey? The more I read of their published writings (emails, etc..), the more I tend to lean towards their understanding and opinions on several subjects just as Hell, Grace, Diversity of the believers, etc…Unfortunately, the Independent Christian church where we attend, does not seem to have the same opinions on some of these subjects (Hell specifically). I was raised conservative church of Christ, and my spouse was raised southern Baptist. So we come from a very “works based”, law keeping, background. But once I started reading many of the writings of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Cecil Hook, I started questioning my stance on many topics.

All that said… I guess my main questions are… Do you have an opinion on these men and their writings? And, where do you worship (collectively) at on a regular basis?

Thanks so much for your time and help.

My reply:

Hi, I appreciate your email very much.

My background is also fairly conservative Church of Christ. My first college was Freed Hardeman, which was much more conservative then (late 60’s) than now. I’m actually very grateful for my conservative grounding even though my attitude, demeanor, and focus have changed quite a bit over the years. I am currently attending a local small community church (I live in a small town 50 miles west of Indianapolis), and the only Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are either hard line conservative and don’t want me there or too far for me to drive to economically. The funny thing is, the preacher of the church I attend is a young earther (!), but insists that I teach the Sunday school class and has me preach whenever he is away, and he never tries to put stipulations on anything I would say. I think he appreciates my focus on the scriptures, and certainly he is a good friend. Like any church this one has many good people of various backgrounds and leanings.

I consider Edward Fudge a personal friend, and also appreciate the work of such men as those you mention. I would not say I am a student of any of them (I’m simply not an avid reader of any of them, not that I’m opposed to them), but that is not due to any dissatisfaction so much as my attentions are simply in other places. I agree with Edward that traditional views of hell (prominent everywhere in evangelical circles) is overdone and problematic. I have actually never stated my own views on this topic anywhere, and will not do so here. But I will say that they (my views) are friendly to the efforts of Edward and others, even if they differ on some points as well.

What I love to this day about my upbringing is the emphasis I received on the love and respect for biblical text and about taking it above and beyond any attitude or teaching or tradition I have available to me. If I have a central “heartbeat,” this is it: the love and respect for the ancient scriptures above other forms of Christian focus. (Certainly, not in any Pharisaical sense.)  That is why in every single one of our Coffee With Paul activities (online or “live” or in writing) we emphasize responsible, contextual, and conversational readings of the scriptures. Now this sounds nice and friendly, but the truth is, when we actually do this, that kind of reading of the scriptures itself exposes all of the hardened tartar on our theological teeth.

Again, I thank you for your letter, and I hope I have addressed your questions.

Many blessings,

Gary

______________________

Gary D. Collier
CWP Classroom
http://CoffeeWithPaul.com

Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

“Thus Bible-believing Christians don’t (or can’t) accept the belief there are aliens on other planets.”

Ken Ham, Creation Museum (email I received today)

I don’t know Ken Ham personally and would not make personal comments in any case.  My response, here, is purely about the position taken and the way it was presented.  And I couldn’t decide whether to speak softly, using the back door, or more directly.  So here goes.

The quote above, including the entire letter that was sent, is just embarrassing nonsense.  (I kinda decided against the back door).  What he believes about aliens, or what you believe, is a personal issue.  But look at the law that just got passed for all “Bible-believing Christians.”

. . . Christians don’t (or can’t) accept . . .

It is ludicrous and has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible. Actually, all of the existing “Christian” Bibles (Protestant, Catholic, and more)  are collections of ancient documents which speak to an ancient faith:  a faith that is still valid and viable. It contains wisdom and direction and story and many other things.  But it is not a science book and Bible-believing Christians are free to think for themselves despite such narrow-minded pontifications.  Even on the off chance he meant that “some Christians feel compelled/are not personally able to accept,” it is horribly stated.

Believe in aliens, don’t believe.  Who cares!  But leave the Bible out of this conversation.  The Bible does not address this issue on any level.  This approach has skeptics howling.  And I don’t blame them.  It is nothing but farcical ignorance.

It sounds exactly like the end of the 19th century when preachers and some Greek teachers were claiming that NT Greek was “Holy Spirit” Greek, a special language made by God for writing the NT.  Uhh . . .  oh yes, well . . . then somebody found the Greek papyri proving conclusively that NT Greek was written in Koine (common) Greek, a form of Hellenistic Greek.  Imagine that.  Ancient Christian documents written in common, everyday language.

Truth is, I really like the following commercial.  It is not only a class act, it is far more truthful and appealing than anything (so far) that I’ve seen from the would-be spokesman for all of Christianity:

There is not one thing about this video that requires atheism (which is not mentioned until the final 2 seconds).  One could debate whether “knowledge” and “the power of  logic” are the pristine power for the salvation of the world that is rather naively presented.  Somehow, I think maybe love, and respect, and honor, and ethics, and morality, and guarded ambition, and intelligent conversation somehow belong in this mix:  but it is a 1 minute video and does a great job of stating itself.

As for me, I go one God further than either atheism or Hamite Christianity (which are curiously mirror images of each other).   I don’t rely on magic or mysticism or think that once we all get logical that our problems will all melt away.  And I sure don’t think that bending the Bible around to my beliefs is any more helpful than bending science, or logic, or knowledge around.   I don’t hide behind a made-up view of the Bible to protect me, and I absolutely don’t worry that some (Christians or Atheists) doubt me:  I just let ’em.  I think for myself while respecting the visions and strivings of many, many others in many, many disciplines.

All of this said, when the above video commercial is contrasted with the Ken Ham approach (which is then labeled “Bible-believing Christianity”), I’ll choose the video in a cold minute.

I’m a thinker, set free by Jesus Christ;  never was nor will be a descendant of Ham.

Gary D. Collier

[I repeat:  this is not a personal comment.  This is, however, a clear, focused, and intended rejection of the position that was offered.]

PROBE—–Conversation with the Bible

There are many ways or “systems” to help you read the Bible.  All can be useful if you actually use them.  Too often, Bible readers just skim the top and do what they’ve always done.

If you want to read through the Bible in a year or six months or three weeks, you can find schedules to do that. Far too often these have you jumping hopscotch style all over the place.  Frankly, this is madness.  In the long run, it destroys any contextual awareness of the documents being read.   There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in a year;  but if that’s what you want to do, respect the documents as you read:  read them contextually, beginning to end, without jumping around.

A More Excellent Way

To be a good Bible reader, you don’t have to read the whole Bible every year. In fact, most of the time, it is better to slow down and focus on particular documents for that year—–to read deeply, carefully, and closely.

PROBE is an excellent way to do this.  It takes the best of the Bible reading concerns and puts them into an easy to remember, step-by-step (5 steps) approach so that you don’t forget anything.  It simply encourages good reading habits.  PROBE is an acronym (see below).

I’ll use an example to illustrate.  Jude is an excellent letter to practice PROBE.  Each day you read with a different agenda in mind:

Step 1: Monday:  Pre-read and Preview the text, surveying it.

You skim through it, trying to pick up some highlights.  You take a few notes.  And you pray about it all, of course (as with every reading).

Step 2: Tuesday:  Read and Recap the text in your own words:  just you and this text.

a. You read the whole text through, beginning to end.  As much as possible, in one sitting.  (For Jude, this is easy.)  This is where you read the text multiple times and in multiple translations.  At this point, you ALWAYS stay within this one document, not allowing your reading of it to be contaminated by other texts or ideas.

b. When you finish reading, you recap.  By recap I mean you actually try to provide a “summary” in your own words of what this text says.

Step 3: Wednesday:  Observe the text:  Turn your reading into a conversation with the author.

a. Taking notes, Asking questions, Challenging the Author, Going back and re-reading the text to find answers.

b. You might do word studies here, using resources like Young’s Analytical Concordance, or better, Bible Software (like BibleWorks, Logos, or Lumina) to help you examine the text. (Just stay away from commentaries.  That’s next step.)

c. Also, how is this text related to other texts outside of this one?  If it quotes other texts, read those too.  Not just single verses, but whole contexts.

Step 4:  Thursday:  Brainstorm:  Now, and only now, you’re ready to talk to others.

This is where you invite others to the table: Bible commentators, encyclopedias, and dictionaries;  or friends, or a preacher or teacher.  Just don’t start here! (That is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, starting here.)   Now that you’ve done your own reading work, you can converse with others.   Only now, you invite them as conversation partners.

Step 5:  Friday:  Engage:  Here you focus on “what difference all of this makes for my life!”

What can I do today that will put into practice what I have learned from this document.

This might take hours, days, or weeks to do this.  And Jude is a very good document to practice this with because it is so short.  Even so, this is appropriate for every document (book, letter, Psalm, etc.) of the Bible.

Not New

This PROBE idea is not a new thing:  it is actually the best of Bible reading practices brought into one place—an easy, step-by-step approach that helps you cover all the bases in the most helpful order.  It is reading with a goal in mind:  to put into practice what you read in conversation.

Here is again. . .PROBE_2014_07-30

Heart Prints

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book:  Engaging Paul:  Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians.  Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014).  The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation.  Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is.  This book will challenge that notion.  The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4:  “Text and Conversation.”

Heart-Prints and Texts

More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.

This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.

So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:

Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.

A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.

Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)

Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”

It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.

So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apart from emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.

heartprints2Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.

In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.

Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.

So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.

Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.

When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.

4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:

astronomy-astrology

Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.

Gary