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Diagnosis, Prescription, Smokescreens, and the Gospel

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Prescription Diagnosis Smokescreens and the Gospel-1

I’ve never been to a doctor who has given me a prescription without first taking my vital signs, asking pertinent questions, and then given a specific diagnosis.  I think sometimes we do prescribe the Gospel before we give a more specific diagnosis in our evangelistic efforts and Gospel conversations.

Gospel Dumptrucks and Hand Grenades

When I was a non-believer I had a few conversations where I certainly felt like the person sharing Jesus with me just wanted me to shut up so they could back their Gospel dump truck on me and verbally unload.  Maybe this has been you before – I know I have been on the giving and receiving ends of these conversations.  How do we weave the Gospel into our conversations such that we aren’t backing up the dumptruck or lobbing a Gospel hand grenade and running?  How can we speak more to the root of the unbelief and less in generalities and/or avoid tangential topics.

Smokescreens and Scuba-Diving

Reformed circles are relatively clear with regards to the essentials of the general Gospel prescription (creation, fall, redemption, consummation).  What seems to be unclear is a road-map of how we get to those conversations and how we do winsomely.

The big thing that seems to be missing in all of our evangelistic and/or apologetic dialogue is basic listening and counseling skills.  From my perspective most objections to the Gospel fit very broadly into one of three categories:  head, heart, or hands.  Of the head (intellectual objections), heart (emotive and idol-based objections), and hands (experiential or hypocritical objections) types of objections to the Gospel – so much of our conversations get stuck in head (ie. problem of evil, NT reliability, existence of God…) or hand (ie. ‘Christians are hypocrites’ [duh!], ‘I had a bad experience’, or ‘look at the Crusades’…) type objections to the Gospel.  From my experience most of these objections are mere smokescreens meant to derail or parry the conversation away from the idols of their own heart – the real source of their unbelief.  For people who have honest (head or hand) questions/objections give them, “honest answers,” as Francis Schaeffer said.  To be helpful in our dialogue we must ask questions that get to the heart of the unbelief.

Scuba-diving is the term we use at our church for the art of asking questions that get to the heart and more root level idols.  Here are some helpful scuba-diving questions:

-What are you looking forward to?

-What does that do (the potential surface or root level idol) for you?

-If you didn’t have to work (be a mom, study…) what would you most rather be doing?

These are all variations on the basic question, “what do you want?”  The answer to the “what do you want” question can sometimes be helpful in diagnosing at least surface level idols (sex, money, laziness).   Sometimes you will be able to connect the dots to more root level idols like comfort, escape, power, and control.  Sometimes you hit brick walls because you lack the rapport or relationship needed to ask some of these questions.  There is an art to scuba-diving where you must re-pressurize every so many feet that you dive and you have to know yourself and your relationship well enough to know how deep you can safely dive.

At the core you are trying to get a better picture of what is more beautiful, compelling, or joyful to them than the Gospel?  What is it that they spend their time, money, and thought-life on?  What do they want?  What the heart wants reveals what the heart worships.  The Gospel has so many metaphors, summaries, themes, aspects, touchpoints, and facets.   Different Gospel analogies, themes, or metaphors (truth, security, fidelity, fear, anxiety, addiction, adoption, justice, grace, suffering, power, freedom…) can speak more winsomely to different idols.  When we take a genuine interest in the other person’s soul we are more prone to ask questions and listen.  Questions increase the depth of the scuba-dive.  When we see with more specificity what the lost person’s heart wants, then we can speak the Gospel more directly to the idol(s).

Affirmation and Deconstruction

Once we have taken a look at the wants/idols of the person we have something like a diagnosis.  Typically, idols are disproportionate manifestations of good things – for example the control idol is the good thing, leadership, absolutized.   Before challenging an idol with the sledgehammer of the Gospel consider affirming the elements of it that were once good.  Paul did this in Athens in Acts 17:22-23

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The folks in Athens worshiped the idol of new knowledge.  Paul stroked the idol before he deconstructed the idol.  Earlier in the passage Paul gets chased out of Thessalonica and Berea and heads down to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy.  While Paul is waiting he goes into diagnosis mode in verse 16:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.

Paul diagnosed the idols of the city before speaking the Gospel at them.  On a more corporate level, this allowed Paul to affirm the Athenians desire for knowledge before he challenged the inadequacy of their gods.  How ineffectual does your pantheon of other gods have to be to have an unnamed god that covers up the weakness and inability of all the others?

One might argue that the Gospel itself already has a diagnosis in it and you would be correct.  All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.  The kind of diagnosis I have in view here is more specific than it is general.  The common state of mankind is helpful to draw out in Gospel conversation and is a necessary component of the Gospel.  What I have in view here is connecting the Gospel with more specificity to the idols of the heart.  Every idol has a short-run payoff but ultimately all idols over-promise and under-deliver.  Good diagnosis allows us to show how the idol will not satisfy in the long-run and show how the Gospel will.

When diagnosis precedes prescription it helps to bring more precise focus and clarity as to how Christ is better than their surrogate god(s).   May Paul’s prayer for clarity be the same as ours:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. – Col. 4:3-4

Written by Michael Graham

May 27, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Good News: Atheists Can Now Go to Heaven (Says Pope)

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Pope Francis

Bizarre Argument

Pope Francis, in a letter to the founder (Dr. Eugenio Scalfari) of popular Italian newspaper La Repubblica (think USA Today of Italy) wrote the following:

As for the three questions you asked me in  the article of August 7th.  It would seem to me that in the first two, what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus.  First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.  Given that  –  and this is fundamental  –  God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.  In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil.  The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.  (Full text translated to English by La Repubblica can be found here)

This has to be one of the most bizarre statements every written by a Pope.  In my reading in both the English and the Italian of this letter, Pope Francis seems to be asserting an argument something like this:

1.  God’s mercy has no limits – contingent on the sincere contrition of the heart

2.  Sincere contrition of the heart means obedience to own’s own conscience

3.  Obedience to the conscience involves the perception of good and evil

4.  A sincere contrite heart is the one does what is right in the eye of his own conscience

(Therefore)

5.  Pope Francis cannot judge the atheist (Dr. Scalfari) and by corollary any other person(s) who are obedient to their consciences

I am pretty sure I am not taking the Pope’s comments out of context, nor being uncharitable to the argument.  If taken to the logical conclusion anyone on Earth who feels like they are a good person in their own eyes should (or at least could) be a part of God’s kingdom.  This kind of argument does not square with the Gospel or even Catholic dogma.  In my experiences talking with people about spiritual matters nearly all feel that they are a “good person” and would self-affirm that they are obedient to their own conscience.

 

The Love of God, Liberalism and the book of Judges

Pope Francis’ seems to be attempting to make a case that the central tenet of the Christian faith is the Incarnation of Jesus and that the most important element of the atonement is the love of God:

Christian faith believes in this:  that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life to open the way to love for everyone.  Therefore there is a reason, dear Dr. Scalfari, when you see the incarnation of the Son of God as the pivot of Christian faith.  Tertullian wrote “caro cardo salutis”, the flesh (of Christ) is the pivot of salvation. Because the incarnation, that is the fact that the Son of God has come into our flesh and has shared joy and pain, victories and defeat of our existence, up to the cry of the cross, living each event with love and in the faith of Abbà, shows the incredible love that God has for every man, the priceless value that he acknowledges. For this reason, each of us is called to accept the view and the choice of love made by Jesus, become a part of his way of being, thinking and acting.  This is faith, with all the expressions that have been dutifully described in the Encyclical.

* * *

In your editorial of July 7th, you also asked me how to understand the originality of Christian Faith as it is actually based on the incarnation of the Son of God, with respect to other religions that instead pivot on the absolute transcendency of God.

I would say that the originality lies in the fact that faith allows us to participate, in Jesus, in the relationship that He has with God who is Abbà and, because of this, in the relationship that He has with all other men, including enemies, in the sign of love. In other words, the children of Jesus, as Christian faith presents us, are not revealed to mark an inseparable separation between Jesus and all the others:  but to tell us that, in Him, we are all called to be the children of the only Father and brothers with each other. The uniqueness of Jesus is for communication not for exclusion.

In this sense, coupled with the argument above, Pope Francis seems far closer to Unitarianism or liberal Protestantism than he does Catholicism or anything from the New Testament.  This is some kind of vague pure love of God version of Jesus who is the nice Galilean homeless guy who challenged the status quo and broke social norms so we can all sit around the campfire holding hands singing kumbaya.  This is the pure love of God version of Jesus that doesn’t really care about sin… as long as you feel good about obeying your own seared conscience.

There was a time when God’s people did what was right in their own eyes… :

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 17:6 ESV

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

… and it was a total mess.

 

The Good News

To be crystal clear, Jesus’ death on the cross makes no sense for anything but the paying for the sin of His people and the transfer of His perfect life in return.  

The Good News is that Jesus was perfect so that you the imperfect might have your law-breaking wiped clean and Jesus’ perfection deposited into your account.  His death is what wipes away the penalty of law-breaking and His perfect life is what makes His people Holy in the eyes of God.

Written by Michael Graham

September 12, 2013 at 10:21 am

Why Authenticity is Not the Highest Virtue

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Trevin Wax over at the Gospel Coalition has a great piece entitled, “Being True to Yourself is Living a Lie.”  The gist of the article is that much of pop culture today – everyone from Disney to Lady Gaga – is espousing that being true to oneself is the highest virtue.  He sites some of the following examples from Disney and Gaga:

  • Cinderella singing about her dreams and being true to her inner princess
  • Mulan refusing to fit into cultural stereotypes
  • Ariel longing for a world she wasn’t created for
  • Aladdin becoming the prince he pretended to be

Music only reinforces this message during the teenage years. For example, Lady Gaga’s anthem “Born This Way” celebrates our urgings and longings:

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

The underlying assumption here is that the highest virtue of life is authenticity to self.

Nietzsche, Disney and Lady Gaga

This kind of assumption has its roots in neither Disney films nor Lady Gaga’s music.  The roots of these assumptions are found in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche essentially espouses the most consistent (as consistent as anything can be within a framework that has no God and by corollary no Truth, no fixed axioms… etc.) atheistic system.  Nietzsche is one of the few atheists that actually says that morality is contingent on God’s existence.  For him, because God does not exist, neither does morality and morality is nothing but a human construction that is keeping humanity from evolving beyond humanity.  For Nietzsche, he wants humanity to shed itself of morality and embrace power and dominion over weaker humans.  Only when a few will be cruel and domineering over weaker humans (humans who still embrace morality, Truth… etc.) will humanity start the process of becoming like the overman (the overman is to humanity what humanity is to the apes – the next step in our evolutionary biology).  Here is the KEY – The key to embracing power… The key to rejecting morality and its chains… The key to evolving and walking the tightrope towards the overman… is AUTHENTICITY TO SELF.  (For more on this you can read a piece I wrote entitled – Why Nietzsche is Helpful for the Christian)

The Problem with Authenticity to Self

The big problem with authenticity to self is that we are children of Adam.  As children of Adam, being authentic to ourselves means we should embrace all our sin patterns and call them good and healthy.  What happens if we apply the lyrics of the Lady Gaga song to the man who is attracted to little boys or girls?

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

What happens if we apply these lyrics is that pedophilia is not only not wrong, it is rather virtuous and good – for I am merely exercising my authenticity to my personhood as a son of Adam.  Margaret Sanger was just being authentic to her feeling that certain races and genetic material was inferior and therefore ought to be prevented from birth or eliminated from the womb.  Hitler was just being authentic to his extreme hatred in his heart for the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals.  Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Albert Fish, Ted Bundy, and the Zodiac were all just expressing on the canvas of the murdered bodies their authentic personhood as sons of Adam.

Calling all the sinful, disobedient, law-breaking, twisted and harmful desires of our heart good is not just unhealthy it is dangerous to society, the thriving of culture and the reality of the Gospel.

The Good News

The good news is authenticity is a virtue in the new life we have when we are adopted into Christ’s family.  We are given the mind of Christ, the Holy Spirit, God’s book, and a community of people to grow and flourish.  Authenticity means living in light of being no longer a son of Adam but a son of the King – one who has been set free from the mind of sin and death and is free to become a slave of Christ.

Best Links of the Week

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The End of Church Planting?  Interesting article that isn’t as provocative as the title.  Definitely worth a read and a place at the table for missiological theory of church planting, challenging the dominant paradigm of the entrepreneurial paid pastor/planter.

How to use rewards/frequent-flyer credit cards to create a self-fulfilling profit loop (buy certain gold coins, get rewards/miles, deposit gold in bank, pay off credit card with gold deposited into bank).

Third Millennium Ministries has its own iPhone and Android apps.  The content of ThirdMill is truly top shelf.  I am of the opinion that Third Mill is probably one of the most important ministries of our time and all on a shoestring budget.  If you care at all about the Gospel and the future of the church you ought to donate to them.  I am thankful that there are actually some forward thinking strategists that are creating excellent scalable content capable of penetrating that glaring lack of theological training of pastors worldwide.

The Decline of the Nuclear Family.  Some pretty staggering statistics and commentary on the status of family in the U.S.

Mayim Bialik (Blossom, Amy Farrah Fowler) of Big Bang Theory is actually a PhD and published in Neuroscience (HT: BL)

Mortgage companies are still ‘robo-signing’

Centrist Tom Coburn has an interesting debt proposal – I was definitely not expecting a proposal from one of the ‘Gang of Six’

77 year old Congressman confronts gun wielding intruder

An interesting piece giving some provocative thoughts regarding the Cosmological Argument

There are several layers of awesome to this Pepsi ad (coming from a staunch Coca-Cola fan):

Best Links of the Week

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I think some PAC published this video… worth watching

How to use Zotero to organize your personal library.  Zotero has personally saved me literally dozens of hours on a single project I worked on recently.  Any person in graduate school writing papers should use this tool.  The simple firefox/Office plugin will format your footnotes and create your Bibliography and/or Works Cited for you.  Hours saved.  I can’t believe more people don’t use this already.

The French are funny.  They are rioting because their version of Social Security got moved from age 60 to age 62.  I remember them getting all fussy when Sarkozy changed the work week from 35 hours to 40 hours.

Capitalism Saved the Miners

WSJ on the status of the mortgage mess in the U.S.

Spot on TIME Magazine piece on why young Italian professionals are leaving Italy in droves.  For once, an American journalistic enterprise hits a home run on understanding the many layers of Italian culture and economics.  Here is a bonus piece on the trash crisis in Naples, Italy.  I remember the citizens of Avellino getting so upset at their trash crisis that they started dumping trash on the city courthouse steps and lighting it on fire.  Awesome.

Inflation

Know Your Heretics

An interesting opinion piece on UGA’s new engineering school and the state of education in the state of Georgia.

 

 

A Tribute to the Retiring Alvin Plantinga

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Alvin Plantinga has been a professor of philosophy for over 50 years, spending his last 28 years at Notre Dame.   To be quite frank he is one of the best philosophers in the past few centuries.   I think the greatest complement I have ever heard of Plantinga came a Jewish atheist professor at UF, who said something to the effect, ‘Alvin Plantinga has single handidly made Christianity respectable again in philosophy… his arguments are so damn good, that I have reconsidered my atheism.’

In analytic philosophy circles, Christianity was seen as an epistemological joke.  Plantinga painstakingly carved out a space for Christianity back at the discussion table in even the most hostile departments.  It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Plantinga was at Notre Dame considering his theological and philosophical heritage was from the Reformed tradition.  However, from what I understand the President of Notre Dame at the time wanted the best Christian thinking and at that time it happened to be Reformed epistemology.   So, Notre Dame grabbed guys like Plantinga, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter van Inwagen.

Here is a poor attempt at a brief and uncomprehensive summary his contribution to Christian thought:

Warranted Christian Belief and God as properly basic (Reformed Epistemology)

In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga makes a case that several things are properly basic.  Something that is properly basis does not require proof and functions as the bedrock that we layer our daily lives on top of.  One such example is Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I exist.”  The most important thing that Plantinga voraciously argues for is that the existence of God is properly basic [and the atheists gasp, throwing the yellow flag calling for a 5 yard illegal motion penalty].  Plantinga makes a very good case (along with the presuppositionalists) that belief in God requires no proof or justification.  Consider the following – can you prove that other minds exist.  It sounds like a stupid question, but can you?  I could be a brain in a vat, or Neo in the Matrix, or the muse of some evil genius and all of what I think is reality could be completely constructed, and I am on the only thinking being.  None of us thinks or believes that we are the only mind in existence.  In simple terms, the belief in other minds is properly basic in a similar way that belief in God is properly basic.  Plantinga spends the rest of the book defending that the Christian worldview is justifiable.

Free-Will Defense Against the Logical Problem of Evil

There are several Problem(s) of Evil in philosophy.  The most common had been the logical problem of evil:

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.    2. There is evil in the world.    3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

Most philosophers have conceded that Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil in his Free-Will Defense, and have given up on the logical problem of evil.  First off, it is important to say that his argument is a defense and not a theodicy.  A theodicy is a justification for why evil exists in a world created by God.  A defense exists merely to show a logically possible set of premises that refutes the trilemma above.  Plantinga’s argument goes like such:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.  God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 166-167.

In undergrad, I wrote a paper reworking Plantinga’s argument removing a free-will view of Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility and inserting a compatibilist view in its place.  I believe that my paper did no harm to Plantinga’s argument and that his argument is still compatible with compatibilism.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The evolutionary argument against naturalism is sheer brilliance.  He argues that if evolution and naturalism are true then it seriously undermines both evolution and naturalism.  Naturalism is the idea that we hold ideas “true” today because they have “survival value.”  If evolution and naturalism are true, then human thinking evolved to produce ideas that have survival value and not necessarily truth.  The set of beliefs that maximizes my ability to eat, reproduce, and fight is not always what is true.  Evolution and naturalism, therefore, are tuned to survival rather than truth.  Therefore, this casts significant doubt on trusting our thinking itself, and included in that thinking are both the ideas of evolution or naturalism themselves.  Genius.

Modal Logic Version of Ontological Argument

It took me 3 years, 4 philosophy professors, and 4 versions of the argument to finally understand its genius.  It is not sophistry; it is not a parlor trick; it is not a aberration of grammar.  Do not go chasing the ontological argument unless you have copious amounts of time, a willingness to make your brain hurt, and the patience to deconstruct why Gaunilo and Kant’s objections are incorrect.  If you are up to the task, start here.

In the wake of evangelicalism’s massive receding from all public spheres (particularly the University), Plantinga has nearly single-handidly re-carved out a space for the Christian to have a voice in philosophy and respectability in the University.  You would be wise to have a basic understanding of his thinking.

Thank you Alvin.  I am deeply indebted.

Nietzsche vs. Christianity, Part 4

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This lecture focuses on Christianity’s response to Nietzsche and the problem of Foucault.

Audio is available here.

I.  Recapping Nietzsche’s objections to Christianity:

A.  Intellectually impossible

B.  It demeans humanity

C.  Its morality is fatal to life

II.  In Christianity’s Place are Nietzsche’s Affirmations:

  1. Be a free-spirit
  2. Be curious
  3. Be nomadic

III.  Christian Responses

Abraham Kuyper

Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov

Blaise Pascal – Pensees

Karl Barth

Francis Schaeffer – true/livable

St. Augustine

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

IV.  The Problem of Foucault

V.  Talking Points

A.  Is the Nietzschean worldview true?

B.  Is the Nietzschean worldview livable?

C.  Does Foucault present a problem for Nietzsche’s worldview?

D.  Does Nietzsche really understand Christianity?

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