The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Book Summary

Introduction

“I find your lack of faith – disturbing” Darth Vader

What an interesting quote to start off this book intended to help those

The Thinker by Rodin

struggling with faith! In this book, Tim shares from his vast experience of sharing the gospel with New Yorkers. I have found the book to be immensely helpful. Tim says that the book is a “distillation of the many conversations he had with doubters.” When the book first came out, I sent it to a “doubter” and it provided a good starting point for the discussion.

Tim starts with the following question:

Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right. Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well.

Tim describes three barriers that he faced as he moved into faith:

    • Intellectual
    • Personal – Did he have a personal relationship with God?
    • Social – Were there others with whom he could walk this journey?

Addressing doubt he says:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic.

Part I The Leap of Doubt

Chapter 1 – There Can’t Be Just One Religion

One of the “doubters” that Tim listened to said:

If Christians continue to insist that they have ‘the truth’—and if other religions do this as well—the world will never know peace.”

Tim often asked people:

“What is your biggest problem with Christianity? What troubles you the most about its beliefs or how it is practiced?” One of the most frequent answers I have heard over the years can be summed up in one word: exclusivity.

Describing a panel of Jews, Muslims and Christians at a local college, Tim reports that they all could agree on the following:

“If Christians are right about Jesus being God, then Muslims and Jews fail in a serious way to love God as God really is, but if Muslims and Jews are right that Jesus is not God but rather a teacher or prophet, then Christians fail in a serious way to love God as God really is.”

But this disturbed some of the younger people who felt that:

what mattered was to believe in God and to be a loving person yourself.

How do we address the divisiveness of religion? Tim sees the culture taking three approaches:

    • Outlaw religion
    • Condemn religion
    • Radically privatize it

Outlaw Religion

 The Soviets, Communist China, the Khmer Rouge, and Nazi Germany all tried this. But as:

Alister McGrath in his history of atheism [says]: The 20th century gave rise to one of the greatest and most distressing paradoxes of human history: that the greatest intolerance and violence of that century were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.

Condemn Religion

Here are the major ways that people today attempt to condemn religion:

    • “All major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing.”
    • “Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”
    • “Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be ‘truth.’”
    • “It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it.”

Some of the arrogance is seen as follows:

Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief. It assumes God is unknowable, or that God is loving but not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks in Scripture.

It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.

Radically Privatize it

The claim is made that we should keep our beliefs to ourselves and unite around policies that work for real people:

However, Stephen L. Carter of Yale responds that it is impossible to leave religious views behind when we do any kind of moral reasoning at all. Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital.

Although Keller sympathizes with those who address the divisiveness of religion, he believes that Christianity has the answers that can save the world. It starts with a Biblical world view about the image of God:

The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect nonbelievers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them.

Keller claims that during the first two centuries when urban plagues were wiping out whole populations, Christians ran towards the plague rather than away from it. He asks:

Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making.

Chapter Two – How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

Tim opens this chapter with the following:

For many people it is not the exclusivity of Christianity that poses the biggest problem, it is the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Some find unjust suffering to be a philosophical problem, calling into question the very existence of God. For others it is an intensely personal issue. They don’t care about the abstract question of whether God exists or not—they refuse to trust or believe in any God who allows history and life to proceed as it has.

Keller believes that, despite the common perception that evil disproves the existence of God, Christian and skeptical academics now agree that this argument is completely bankrupt. Tim asks “Why isn’t evil an argument against the existence of God?” He makes the following points:

    • Evil and Suffering isn’t evidence against God – Here is the basic argument used by skeptics: “If a good and powerful God exists, he would not allow pointless evil, but because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist. Some other god or no god may exist, but not the traditional God.” Keller claims: “Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless.” And further: “This reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see
      Alvin Plantinga

      lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order.” Finally, he cites Alvin Plantinga (a great Friesian name) analogy: If you are in a tent camping and you look for a Saint Bernard in the tent and don’t see one, it is a safe assumption there is not a Saint Bernard in your tent. But if you look for “no-see-ums” and don’t see any, that doesn’t mean that they are not there.

    • Evil and Suffering May be Evidence for God – Keller cites C.S. Lewis and
      C.S. Lewis

      Plantinga about how our sense of “rightness” – i.e. evil and suffering are not right and just – may point to One who provides a moral framework for judging what is good and what is not good. Lewis said that when he solidified his atheist position because of the problem of evil and suffering, it actually made evil and suffering more problematic.

One of the interesting points he makes in this chapter that I had not thought of before was that Jesus did not face death like many of our heroic martyrs. Jesus believed that God had forsaken Him. He was overwhelmed to the point of death. Keller asks “Why?” He says that we need to understand the depth of the suffering of Jesus as the suffering of God. Jesus did not face death as heroically as many martyrs because He suffered as one who took upon Himself the sins of the world. His suffering far outweighed that of anyone else. This ultimately is the only answer that we can give to the problem of evil and suffering. We cannot fully explain evil and suffering, but when we look at the cross we know that God has, in some mysterious way, entered into our suffering. Keller says:

if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.

Quoting Dostoevsky:

Fyodor Dostoevsky

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

And Lewis:

They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.

Chapter 3 – Christianity is a Strait-Jacket

In this chapter, Tim tackles the question: “Is belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom?” He begins by attempting to define freedom. Quoting from the movie “I, Robot” he claims that for our culture, “freedom means that there is no overarching purpose for which we were created. If there were, we would be obligated to conform to it and to fulfill it, and that is limiting.”

I remember when one of our grandsons was very little, he asked his mom the following questions:

Grandson: Grandma is your mom, right?
Mother: Yes
Grandson: Who is Grandma’s mother?
Mother: Gigi. She died and is now in heaven.
Grandson: [After a long pause] That means she can do whatever she wants.

Even at four years old, we recognize that a higher authority limits our freedom. But our culture has enshrined freedom into law via the Supreme Court:

Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” Notice that the statement does not say we are just free to “discover” truth for ourselves but rather to “define” and create it. Stephen Jay Gould concurs:

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available…. We may yearn for a “higher” answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers for ourselves…

Keller then addresses the objection that all truth is a power-play. He claims that this leads to a kind-of seeing through everything and coming to nothing. Quoting Lewis:

But you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too?…a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

He then takes the same tact we take when someone says: “There is no absolute truth.” That is an absolute truth claim. If we say all truth claims are power-plays, then so is this statement.

Next, Tim attempts to make the claim that true community cannot be inclusive. He uses this illustration:

Imagine that one of the board members of the local Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Community Center announces, “I’ve had a religious experience and now I believe homosexuality is a sin.” As the weeks go by, he persists in making that assertion. Imagine that a board member of the Alliance Against Same-Sex Marriage announces, “I discovered that my son is gay and I think he has the right to marry his partner.” No matter how personally gracious and flexible the members of each group are, the day will come when each group will have to say, “You must step off the board because you don’t share a common commitment with us.” The first of these communities has the reputation for being inclusive and the second for being exclusive, but, in practice, both of them operate in almost the very same way. Each is based on common beliefs that act as boundaries, including some and excluding others. Neither community is being “narrow”—they are just being communities.

Then, Keller addresses the complaint that Christianity is culturally rigid – the enemy of pluralism and multiculturalism.  He points to the growth of Christianity in Africa and China as examples of how the gospel is appealing across many cultures. Keller turns the tables and says that secularism is much more culturally rigid.

[African scholar Lamin] Sanneh argues that secularism with its anti-supernaturalism and individualism is much more destructive of local cultures and “African-ness” than Christianity is. In the Bible, Africans read of Jesus’s power over supernatural and spiritual evil and of his triumph over it on the cross. When Africans become Christians, their African-ness is converted, completed, and resolved, not replaced with European-ness or something else.

Next Keller tries to make the case that freedom is not as simple as Kant made

Immanuel Kant

it out to be: the absence of constraint and confinement.  Again, Tim turns the tables and says the opposite. Citing examples of learning any complex task, he claims that constraint and confinement to a rigid set of rules give the artist, the musician, and the athlete the freedom to  do what they do with complete freedom.

Last, Tim tackles the issue of love and claims that it limits our options more than we think.

One of the principles of love—either love for a friend or romantic love—is that you have to lose independence to attain greater intimacy. If you want the “freedoms” of love—the fulfillment, security, sense of worth that it brings—you must limit your freedom in many ways. You cannot enter a deep relationship and still make unilateral decisions or allow your friend or lover no say in how you live your life. To experience the joy and freedom of love, you must give up your personal autonomy.

Quoting Lewis:

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.

Chapter 4 – The Church is Responsible for so much Injustice

This chapter opens with an account of a professor (Mark Lilla) who “de-converted” in college when he encountered a Christian community that was authoritarian and hierarchical. This was the same community (The Word of God Community in Ann Arbor) where I found Jesus. He was there 5 years after me and that might account for the different perspectives. But authority and hierarchy are not necessarily bad things. I am sure there is more to the story for this professor, but I read the article in the New York Times and he doesn’t fill in too many details.

I take exception to Keller’s example with him since in the article he found the Christian community a “crushing disappointment.” Keller states:

Disillusioned by the combative and exploitative way he thought they used the Bible to control people’s lives, “the thought penetrated my mind—that the Bible might be wrong…. It was my first step out of the world of faith…”

This is not what Lilla actually said. Every author can quote things out of context by accident or neglect, but my faith in the integrity of Keller’s research and the people that helped him went through a “crushing disappointment.” This is now the 3rd time in the books by Tim Keller that I have found him take something completely out of context to make his point. I don’t go back and check author’s sources very often, but in the few times I did with Keller (because they were suspect), I found him doing this. What the college professor actually said was:

After a few months [at the Word of God community] I got myself into a squabble with someone over Scripture, and sat down the next day to study the verses my adversary had marshaled against me. To my surprise, I concluded he was right about what the Bible said. But in my heart I also knew he had to be wrong about the doctrine at hand. Which meant — it was the first time the thought really penetrated my mind — that the Bible might be wrong. My face flushed and I closed the book. It was my first step out of the world of faith and toward the world I live in now.

Keller claims that Lilla’s “first step out of the world of faith” was because of the way the community used the Bible (which is what this chapter is about – Christianity cannot be true because the Christians are not Christlike (to paraphrase Nietzsche)). But in fact, it was when Lilla saw that the person he squabbled with was correct about what the Bible taught – something which Lilla knew could not be true – that is when he thought – “the Bible might be wrong… [and] was my first step out of the world of faith.” Lilla’s real problem was not with the Christian community. Ultimately it was his view of biblical inerrancy that started him on the road to de-conversion (much like Bart Ehrman).

All that aside, Tim begins by addressing the behavior of Christians that has “undermined the plausibility of Christianity for so many people.” He addresses three issues:

    • Character flaws – “If Christianity is the truth, why are so many non-Christians living better lives than the Christians?”
    • The issue of war and violence – “If Christianity is the truth, why has the institutional church supported war, injustice, and violence over the years?”
    • Fanaticism – Even if Christian teaching has much to offer, why would we want to be together with so many smug, self-righteous, dangerous fanatics?

Character Flaws

There is no lack of material here documenting that we Christians are a deeply flawed people. Tim builds the case that we cannot really compare Christian and non-Christian behavior on an individual basis. He uses an example of two women – one who had a good upbringing and was not a Christian but exhibited Christ-like behavior – the other one was badly abused and came to Christ a short time ago. Keller says:

Unless you know the starting points and life journeys of each woman, you could easily conclude that Christianity isn’t worth much, and that Christians are inconsistent with their own high standards.

I think Tim could develop this more.

Religion and Violence

In this section, Keller takes up Christopher Hitchens’ argument that religion leads to violence. Keller claims that:

Societies that have rid themselves of all religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it.

Fanaticism

Early on in my walk with Jesus, I heard the following

A Jesus fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do

I took the grain of truth from that and have endeavored to love Jesus today more than I did the previous day. Tim now addresses the problem of our embarrassing brothers and sisters. Oh how we wish they were not part of the Body of Christ! Keller claims that fanatics are intolerant and self-righteous and superior. He then says:

The people who are fanatics, then, are so, not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough.

I don’t think Tim goes far enough on this. There are plenty of fanatics similar to what Tim describes. But there are others who are sometimes labeled as fanatics who non-Christians find problematic.  One of our grandson’s lives his life in Jesus in such a way that some members of our family consider him a fanatic. But he doesn’t fit Tim’s definitions. He is, in my opinion,  more “all in” then others. He is less concerned about money than some of us – but he does ask for support which riles certain family members. “He should get a job.” You get the gist. I think this section could be significantly improved to help us have the tools to explain (in my case) to other family members our fantastic “fanatic” grandson.

The Biblical Critique of Religion

Tim points out that the Bible doesn’t shy away from critiquing God’s people for their religion:

As Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it, it was the church, not the world, who crucified Christ.

Jesus and the prophets continually denounce self-righteous religion which is insensitive to the issues of social justice and the poor.

The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain.

Tim closes the chapter by talking about how Christians have worked for the marginal, the poor and for justice.

When people have done injustice in the name of Christ they are not being true to the spirit of the one who himself died as a victim of injustice and who called for the forgiveness of his enemies. When people give their lives to liberate others as Jesus did, they are realizing the true Christianity that Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other Christian voices have called for.

Chapter 5 – How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Here Keller attacks one of the main objections to traditional Christian belief. He states the problem:

[Skeptics] suggested that any Christian who thinks that there are people bound for hell must perceive such people as unequal in dignity and worth. … Although this objection to hell and judgment may seem to be more of a feeling of revulsion than a doubt, we still can find a number of very specific beliefs hidden inside it. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Here are the specifics hidden beliefs inside this objection:

  • A God of Judgment Simply Can’t Exist – Keller address this as follows: “secular Westerners get upset by the Christian doctrines of hell, but they find Biblical teaching about turning the other cheek and forgiving enemies appealing. I then asked her to consider how someone from a very different culture sees Christianity. In traditional societies the teaching about “turning the other cheek” makes absolutely no sense. It offends people’s deepest instincts about what is right. For them the doctrine of a God of judgment, however, is no problem at all. That society is repulsed by aspects of Christianity that Western people enjoy, and are attracted by the aspects that secular Westerners can’t stand.” 
  • A God of Judgment Can’t Be a God of Love – Tim addresses this with the following arguments: “Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…. Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference…. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being. … The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity. … Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain. … Volf and Milosz argue that the doctrine of God’s final judgment is a necessary undergirding for human practices of love and peacemaking.
  • A Loving God Would Not Allow Hell – Tim first defines hell: “In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” AND “In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ” Finally, he quotes Lewis: “There are only two kinds of people—those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘ Thy will be done. All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.
  • Hell causes us to view people unequally – We must not make settled, final decisions about anyone’s spiritual state or fate.” And then he adds this illustration: “Imagine two people arguing over the nature of a cookie. Jack thinks the cookie is poison, and Jill thinks it is not. Jack thinks Jill’s mistaken view of the cookie will send her to the hospital or worse. Jill thinks Jack’s mistaken view of the cookie will keep him from having a fine dessert. Is Jack more narrow-minded than Jill just because he thinks the consequences of her mistake are more dire? I don’t believe anyone would think so. Christians, therefore, aren’t more narrow because they think wrong thinking and behavior have eternal effects.
  • “I Believe in a God of Love” – Today many of the skeptics I talk to say, as I once did, they can’t believe in the God of the Bible, who punishes and judges people, because they ‘believe in a God of Love.’ I now ask, what makes them think God is Love? Can they look at life in the world today and say, ‘This proves that the God of the world is a God of love?’ Can they look at history and say, ‘This all shows that the God of history is a God of love?’ Can they look at the religious texts of the world and conclude that God is a God of love? By no means is that the dominant, ruling attribute of God as understood in any of the major faiths. I must conclude that the source of the idea that God is Love is the Bible itself. And the Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment who will put all things in the world to rights in the end. The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

Chapter 6 – Science has disproved Christianity

Addressing arguments made by many of the new-atheists, Keller addresses the following questions:

Aren’t Miracles Scientifically Impossible? – Keller addresses the two hidden assumptions in this statement:

    1. No Supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible –  This is a philosophical assertion that cannot be tested scientifically
    2. There can’t be a God who does miracles – If there is a Creator God, there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles. After all, if he created everything out of nothing, it would hardly be a problem for him to rearrange parts of it as and when he wishes. To be sure that miracles cannot occur you would have to be sure beyond a doubt that God didn’t exist, and that is an article of faith.

Isn’t Science in Conflict with Christianity? – Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard scientist and evolutionist who was himself an atheist, knew all about these studies [made by Richard Dawkins], but could not conclude with Dawkins that science necessarily clashed with Christian faith. He wrote: “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.”

Looking at miracles in the Bible, Keller states:

The most instructive thing about this text [Matthew 28 where Jesus ascends and some doubted]  is, however, what it says about the purpose of Biblical miracles. They lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce. You never see him say something like: “See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!”

Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.

Jesus’s miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.

Doesn’t Evolution Disprove the Bible? – If “evolution” is…elevated to the status of a world-view of the way things are, then there is direct conflict with biblical faith. But if “evolution” remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating processes.

Chapter 7 – You Can’t take the Bible Literally

Quoting Anne Rice, who as a skeptic and well known author, researched attacks on Christianity:

Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions…. Conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all…. The whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified…that whole picture which had floated around the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years—that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.

Then Keller says:

The Christian faith requires belief in the Bible.  This is a big stumbling block for many.

I don’t think he means this like it reads. Many people came to faith in the first few centuries without a Bible. Tim knows that. I think he means: “The Christian faith is based on the truths in the Bible. And the Bible is a big stumbling block for many.” He then addresses the following questions:

    • “We Can’t Trust the Bible Historically” – Keller responds:

The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends. … All [these manuscripts and the dating] decisively refutes the idea that the gospels were anonymous, collective, evolving oral traditions. Instead they were oral histories taken down from the mouths of the living eyewitnesses who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus in great detail. …

The growth of the church It would have been impossible, then, for this new faith to spread as it did had Jesus never said or done the things mentioned in the gospel accounts. If a historian were cynical, you would say Constantine chose Christianity because it had already won and he wanted to back a winner. 

The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends. … for example, that one of the great controversies in the earliest church was that some believed Gentile Christians should be required to be circumcised. In light of that great conflict, it is remarkable that nowhere in the gospel accounts does Jesus say anything about circumcision. … Why would the leaders of the early Christian movement have made up the story of the crucifixion if it didn’t happen? Any listener of the gospel in either Greek or Jewish culture would have automatically suspected that anyone who had been crucified was a criminal, whatever the speaker said to the contrary. …[And what about] asking God in the garden of Gethsemane if he could get out of his mission? Or why ever make up the part on the cross when Jesus cries out that God had abandoned him? These things would have only offended or deeply confused first-century prospective converts. … Why invent women as the first witnesses of the resurrection in a society where women were assigned such low status that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court? … why constantly depict the apostles—the eventual leaders of the early Church—as petty and jealous, almost impossibly slow-witted, and in the end as cowards who either actively or passively failed their master? … The gospel of Thomas and similar documents express a philosophy called “Gnosticism,” in which the material world is a dark, evil place from which our spirits need to be rescued by secret illumination, or “gnosis.” … This fits in very well with the worldview of the Greeks and Romans but is utterly different than that of the first-century Jewish world of which Jesus was part. …. 

The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend. Quoting Lewis:  I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown [ancient] writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative…  In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism, but that was never the case in ancient fiction. …. disciples in the ancient world were expected to memorize [their] masters’ teachings, and that many of Jesus’s statements are presented in a form that was actually designed for memorization, and [thus] you have every reason to trust the accounts.

    • “We Can’t Trust the Bible Culturally”- It seems to support slavery and the subjugation of women

Keller addresses this in a variety of ways (not listed here)

Consider the views of contemporary British people and how they differ from the views of their ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, a thousand years ago. Imagine that both are reading the Bible and they come to the gospel of Mark, chapter 14. First they read that Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, who will come with angels at the end of time to judge the whole world according to his righteousness (verse 62). Later they read about Peter, the leading apostle, who denies his master three times and at the end even curses him to save his skin (verse 71). Yet later Peter is forgiven and restored to leadership (Mark 16:7; John 21:15ff.).

The first story will make contemporary British people shudder. It sounds so judgmental and exclusive. However, they will love the story about how even Peter can be restored and forgiven. The first story will not bother the Anglo-Saxons at all. They know all about Domesday, and they are glad to get more information about it! However, they will be shocked at the second story. Disloyalty and betrayal at Peter’s level must never be forgiven, in their view.

To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense?

If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible. If he is not who he says he is, why should we care what the Bible says about anything else?

what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?

Intermission

Now Keller attempts to define Christianity by addressing the following questions:

Which Christianity? – For our purposes, I’ll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. They believe that the triune God created the world, that humanity has fallen into sin and evil, that God has returned to rescue us in Jesus Christ, that in his death and resurrection Jesus accomplished our salvation for us so we can be received by grace, that he established the church, his people, as the vehicle through which he continues his mission of rescue, reconciliation, and salvation, and that at the end of time Jesus will return to renew the heavens and the earth, removing all evil, injustice, sin,

Which Rationality? – The new atheists insist that there isn’t sufficient reason to believe in God.  Dawkins claims that the claims of God’s existence should be open to rational demonstration. But Keller asks: Which Rationality?  He claims they are basing their challenge on what he calls “strong rationality.”  Or “no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience.” Keller claims that “most philosophers think that strong rationality is nearly impossible to defend.” Keller proposes “critical rationality” whereby “it assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end.” We “should not expect conclusive proof.” 

Part 2 – The Reasons for Faith

Chapter Eight – The Clues of God

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga believes that there are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons. However, he believes that there are at least two to three dozen very good arguments for the existence of God.

Keller lists the following:

    • “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
    • The Cosmic Welcome Mat – or the Fine-Tuning of the Universe or the Anthropic Principle
    • The Regularity of Nature
    • The Clue of Beauty – In other words, while great art does not “hit you over the head” with a simple message, it always gives you a sense that life is not a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It fills you with hope and gives you the strength to carry on, though you cannot define what it is that moves you.
    • [I would add] The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics

Next Keller notes that the way these clues are normally addressed today is through evolutionary biology. Keller claims that this:

Clue-Killer Is Really a Clue

He says that because some things cannot be explained by evolutionary biology like the big bang and beauty and meaning, this should give us pause to reconsider the claims for God’s existence. But he admits that all of this doesn’t prove God exists but makes a case for the reason for God.

Chapter 9 – The Knowledge of God 

Tim opens this chapter by saying that, contrary to most people’s perception, he feels that our twenty-somethings have a finely tuned moral compass – but that there are some problems with it:

    • Free-Floating Morality – There is no anchor to their morality. He addresses this problem and shows how he helps skeptics see that they really believe in some absolutes with regard to morality.
    • No one should impose their morality on others – He shows how there are things that some people do that is consistent with their own personal morality – but that these young people think are absolutely wrong. Quoting a sociologist: “‘Moral’…is an orientation toward understandings about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, that are not established by our own actual desires or preferences but instead are believed to exist apart from them, providing standards by which our desires and preferences can themselves be judged.

Next, he tries to help the skeptic see what is behind the evolutionary theory of moral obligation and attempts to show how this is a fiercely debated topic and that there is not a common consensus on this.  This brings up the topic of “where do rights come from?” The culture will agree that some things are moral rights – but Keller attempts to challenge these assumptions. It is bad to napalm babies and starve the poor and buy and sell humans – but “Sez who?” That is the problem he pushes – challenging the skeptics assumption. Showing them that their is a moral law to the universe. And where does that law come from? He believes it comes from knowing God. The case laid out in this chapter is complex but is well worth getting the book to fully appreciate his reasoning.

Chapter 10 – The Problem of Sin

In this chapter, Tim attempts to bring up the elephant in the room for many skeptics: the world is broken and we are broken. He addresses the following questions / topics:

    • Sin and Human Hope
    • The Meaning of Sin
    • The Personal consequences of Sin
    • The Social consequences of Sin
    • The Cosmic consequences of Sin
    • What can put it all right?

Neither the language of medicine nor of law is adequate substitute for the language of [sin.] Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely

Simone Weil

at the mercy of our maladies. The choice is to enter into the process of repentance. Contrary to the legal model, the essence of sin is not [primarily] the violation of laws but a wrecked relationship with God, one another, and the whole created order. “All sins are attempts to fill voids,” wrote Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but only God may fill [it].

Andrew Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia University. Some years ago he was doing research on Alcoholics Anonymous and was attending AA meetings around the country. One Saturday morning in a New York City church basement he was listening to a “crisply dressed young man” who was talking about his problems. In his narrative he was absolutely faultless. All his mistakes were due to the injustice and betrayals of others. He spoke of how he was going to avenge himself on all who had wronged him. “His every gesture gave the impression of grievously wounded pride,” Delbanco wrote. It was clear that the young man was trapped in his need to justify himself, and that things could only get worse and worse in his life until he recognized this. While he was speaking, a black man in his forties, in dreadlocks and dark shades, leaned over to Delbanco and said, “I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem.” Delbanco wrote later in his book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope: This was more than a good line. For me it was the moment I understood in a new way the religion I had claimed to know something about. As the speaker bombarded us with phrases like “got to take control of my life,” and “I’ve got to really believe in myself”—the man beside me took refuge in the old Calvinist doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope. What he meant by his joke about self-esteem was that he learned no one can save himself by dint of his own efforts. He thought the speaker was still lost—lost in himself, but without knowing it.

Kierkegaard wrote a fascinating little book called The Sickness Unto Death in 1849. In it he defined “sin” in a way that is rooted in the Bible but also is accessible to contemporary people. “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God…. Faith is: that the self in being itself and wanting to be itself is grounded transparently in God.”

Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him.

Kierkegaard asserts that human beings were made not only to believe in God in some general way, but to love him supremely, center their lives on him above anything else, and build their very identities on him. Anything other than this is sin.

Most people think of sin primarily as “breaking divine rules,” but Kierkegaard knows that the very first of the Ten Commandments is to “have no other gods before me.” So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things.

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death. He begins it by noting that a child’s need for self-worth “is the condition for his life,” so much so that every person is desperately seeking what Becker calls “cosmic significance.” He immediately warns the reader not to take this term lightly.

Our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially “deify.”

Every person must find some way to “justify their existence,” and to stave off the universal fear that they’re “a bum.”

Without God, our sense of worth may seem solid on the surface, but it never is—it can desert you in a moment. For example, if I build my identity on being a good parent, I have no true “self”—I am just a parent, nothing more. If something goes wrong with my children or my parenting, there is no “me” left.

In a Village Voice column, Cynthia Heimel thought back on all the people she knew in New York City before they became famous movie stars. One worked behind the makeup counter at Macy’s, one worked selling tickets at movie theaters, and so on. When they became successful, every one of them became more angry, manic, unhappy, and unstable than they had been when they were working hard to get to the top. Why? Heimel writes: That giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to fill them with ha-ha-happiness had happened, and the next day they woke up and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.

Christians, however, are accustomed to the idea that “there is a deep interior dislocation in the very center of human personality.”

In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love. If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.

The almost impossibly hard thing is to hand over your whole self to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves”—our personal happiness centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, despite this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you cannot do. If I am a grass field—all the cutting will keep the grass less but won’t produce wheat. If I want wheat…I must be plowed up and re-sown.

Chapter 11 – Religion and the Gospel

In this chapter Tim attempts to separate what the culture sees as religion from the pure gospel (or good news). In this chapter he addresses the following questions / topics:

    • The damage of legalism
    • The difference of grace
    • The threat of grace

There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. The first is by saying, “I am going to live my life the way I want.” The second is described by Flannery O’Connor, who wrote about one of her characters, Hazel Motes, that “he knew that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”

Religion operates on the principle “I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.”

A Christian’s worth and value are not created by excluding anyone, but through the Lord who was excluded for me. His grace both humbles me more deeply than religion can (since I am too flawed to ever save myself through my own effort), yet it also affirms me more powerfully than religion can (since I can be absolutely certain of God’s unconditional acceptance).

The Christian’s identity is not based on the need to be perceived as a good person, but on God’s valuing of you in Christ.

Chapter 12 The (True) Story of the Cross

Having attempted to define the gospel, the story of the cross comes next. He starts by providing the reasons for the cross:

    • Real forgiveness is costly suffering – His illustration here is very helpful showing that all true forgiveness is going to cost. He is attempting to refute the idea: Can’t God just forgive everyone without Jesus having to die?
    • Real love is a personal exchange – By exchange he says that to truly love someone you have to enter into both their joys and their sorrows.

In The Cross of Christ, John Stott writes that substitution is at the heart of the Christian message: The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We…put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God…puts himself where we deserve to be.

John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear.

Chapter 13 – The Reality of the Resurrection

Keller was obviously very influenced by a book by N. T. Wright that I am still

N. T. Wright ‘s book

reading. It defends in a scholarly fashion the historicity of the resurrection. The major points he covers are:

        • The empty tomb and the witnesses – He makes the standard case that the New Testament documents (especially the letters of Paul) are so early, that the eye witnesses were still alive.
        • Resurrection and Immortality – Here he builds heavily on the new thoughts brought out by Tom Wright about what resurrection meant to a 1st Century Jew and Gentile.
        • The explosive growth of witness – His major point is that we practice chronological snobbery when we think that the resurrection was any more implausible to the 1st century person than it is for us.
        • The Challenge of the Resurrection – Tim makes the case that everyone must come to terms with the evidence for the resurrection. If it happened, everything must change.
N. T. Wright

In a sermon, N. T. Wright said: The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won…If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense—[then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world—news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all.

Chapter 13 – The Dance of God

Building heavily on C. S. Lewis’ imagery of the dance of God as a way to describe the Trinity, Tim tries to explain the inexplicable and mysterious.

In 1938…I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow…. I discovered the poem…called “Love” [by George Herbert] which I learnt by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me. In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God. —Simone Weil, Waiting for God

When people say, “God is love,” I think they mean that love is extremely important, or that God really wants us to love. But in the Christian conception, God really has love as his essence. If he was just one person he couldn’t have been loving for all eternity.

I quoted C. S. Lewis saying that the only place besides heaven that is free from the pain and suffering of relationships is hell.

Epilogue – Where do we go from here?

This chapter is an appeal to the reader to commit themselves to become a follower of Jesus. In the process he encourages the seeker to:

    • Examine your motives – I know that I got interested in Christianity because I wanted a girl-friend!  And a Christian group on campus had a lot of very nice co-eds!
    • Count the cost
    • Take an inventory / Take stock of what is holding you back – are there content issues; coherency issues – things that don’t hold together about the gospel to you; cost issues – what would have to change? Would you have to become a Republican? e-gads!
    • Make a commitment / Move towards Jesus
    • Commit to Christian community

To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around. —Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

And then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. —J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

We have to recognize that virtually all of us begin our journey toward God because we want something from him.

We usually begin the journey toward God thinking, “What do I have to do to get this or that from him?” but eventually we have to begin thinking, “What do I have to do to get him?” If you don’t make that transition, you will never actually meet the real God, but will only end up believing in some caricature version of him.

There is no question that becoming a follower of Jesus is the most rational thing I have ever done – and yet I know that as the apostle Paul has said, that it was God who found me rather than me finding God. May this summary tweak your interest in stopping and turning around and see the “Hound of Heaven” pursuing you no matter where you are on the continuum of faith.

rumors of another world by Philip Yancey

Book Summary

Philip wrote this book “for those who live in the borderlands of belief.” Now republished under the title A Skeptics Guide to Faith. Philip counts himself as a fellow skeptic.  Perhaps you are a seeker but know you are far from home. Perhaps you are a finder, but not too sure what you have found. I would strongly recommend this book. Philip is a skeptic and a seeker as well as a very good writer. Sometimes, like Lady Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I say Philip “doth protest too much, me thinks.” But keeping in mind that he is writing for those who have not yet stepped into eternal life or have stepped into it but still struggling, this book is for you.

The book is broken into three parts:

Part 1 – What are we missing? – In this part of the book Philips talks about how a reductionist approach has caused us to miss the grander purposes in life. The chapters include Life in Part – emphasizes what we are missing with our reductionist  view of everything; Rumors – talks about the hints all around us that point to something more; Paying Attention – encourages us to pay more attention to the less obvious; God loveth adverbs – expands on the Puritan proverb “implying that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results;” and Designer Sex – expands on our obvious obsession with sex and how that affects us.

Part 2 – Signs of disorder has chapters entitled: Out of Order – addresses the question “Why is the world such a mess?”; A Word Unsaid – addresses the question “What happened to the idea of sin?”; The Good Life – attempts to define human flourishing; and The Gift of Guilt – addresses the positive role that guilt plays in our lives

Part 3 – Two worlds  has chapters entitled: Why Believe? Earth matters; which both address what their title implies; Eyes of Faith – addresses the role faith plays in finding what we are missing; Practicing the Existence of God – addresses what a life lived knowing God can look like; and Stereoscopic Vision – applies Augustine’s “City of God / City of Man” vision to our daily lives.

I have read many of Philip Yancey’s books over the years and have appreciated all of them. My respect for Philip went up greatly when I sent him an email in 2009 about a significant math error in one of his articles for Christianity Today. He was talking about the effect of hyper-inflation on a third world country. He said that, for the current inflation rate in this third world country, if you had one million dollars on Monday it would be worth $1.58 on Tuesday. In fact, you would have $158. Even with the correct math, it was a helpful example. Philip was gracious and exercised “humility before the data.” He corrected it in the on-line version of the article even though he still didn’t get the math.

In this book summary, I am going to provide only quotes from each of the chapters. The quotes may seem disjointed because in this summary (unlike others) I have not attempted to capture the author’s flow. Generally Philip does that masterfully.

Part 1 – What are we missing

Chapter 1 – Life in Part

Every ant knows the formula of its ant-hill
Every bee knows the formula of its beehive
They know it in their own way, not in our way,
Only humankind does not know its formula
Fydor Dostoyevsky

With this poem, Philip kicks off Part 1 chapter 1 setting the tone of the book – we don’t know the formula for living.

Here are quotes from Chapter 1

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. Albert Einstein

[in a] region named Tierra Del Fuego by Magellan’s explorers, [the explorers] noticed  fires burning on the shore.  The natives tending the fires, however, paid no attention to the great ships as they sailed through the straits.  Later, they explained that they [the natives] had considered the ships an apparition, so different were they from anything they had seen. They lacked the experience, even the imagination to decode evidence passing right before their eyes.  … What about us?  What are we missing? What do we not see, for lack of imagination or faith?

In modern times, it seems, as science casts more light on the created world, its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.

No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the sacred, not until the modern West.  Such a leap has consequences that we are only beginning to recognize.  We now live in a state of confusion about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions of meaning, purpose and morality. A skeptical friend of mine used to ask himself the question, “What would an atheist do?” in deliberate mockery of the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) slogan.  He finally stopped asking because he found no reliable answers.

Jacques Monod bluntly states the modern plight: “Man must learn to live in an alien world that is deaf to his music and is as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes … Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.”

Yancey claims that this reductionist mentality leads:

    • To a dilution of pleasure – he quotes Darwin saying that he could no longer stand poetry
    • To a lack of love of beauty – he quotes Lenin who wanted no flowers in his room.  “I cannot listen to music too often. “ Lenin attended a Beethoven sonata “It makes me want to say kind, stupid things and pat the heads of people.”
    • Us to see ourselves as a product of the “selfish gene”
    • Us to use religious words about nature – Naturalists still use the words “sacred” “hallowed” “immortal”

“I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself.  His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates.” Vaclav Havel

We live in dangerous times and face urgent questions not only about the environment but also about terrorism, war, sexuality, world poverty,  and definitions of life and death.  Society badly needs a moral tether or “system of coordinates” in Havel’s phrase.  We need to know our place in the universe and our obligations to each other and to the earth.  Can we answer those questions without God?

Chapter 2 – Rumors

“What if earth be but the shadow of heaven?” John Milton

Again the quotes from this chapter:

What Americans leaned on that day [9/11], and are learning still, is that sophisticated moderns have not renounced transcendence but rather replaced it with weak substitutes.  Unlike past generations, many are unsure about God and an invisible world. Even so, we feel the longings for something more.

Nature is exquisitely tuned for the possibility of life on planet Earth: adjust the laws of gravity up or down by one percent and the universe would not form; a tiny change in electromagnetic force and organic molecules will not adhere.  It appears that, in physicist Freeman Dyson’s words, “The universe knew we were coming.”  To those who know it best, the universe does not seem like a random crapshoot.  It seems downright purposeful – but what purpose and whose?

A society that denies the supernatural usually ends up elevating the natural to supernatural status.  ….C.S. Lewis uses the phrase “sweet poison of the false infinite” to describe this same tendency in the human species.  We allow substitute sacreds, or false infinities, to fill the vacuum of our disenchanted world..

 [God] delights, it seems, in using trees, flowers, rivers, automobiles, friends, enemies, church buildings, paintings in order to announce his presence or to work out his purposes. . . . There is something crude in the depiction of God intervening directly in the play . . . interrupting the speeches of the other actors and upsetting the stage. How much more tantalizing the God who hints and lurks and cajoles hiddenly through and around the actors, even unbeknowst to them. It is the humble God who chooses so to act. –Robert E. Barron

C.S. Lewis sensed in our longings not just rumors but “advanced echoes” of that world.  Flashes of beauty and pangs of aching sweetness, he said, “are not the thing itself: they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard.

I began to listen to my own longings as rumors of another world, a bright clue to the nature of the creator.  Somehow I had fallen for the deception of judging the natural world as unspiritual and God as antipleasure.  But God invented matter, after all, including all the sensors in the body through which I feel pleasure.  Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds, but different expressions of the same reality.

“The whole life of the good Christian is holy desire.” St. Augustine

George Herbert

The Jewish scholar and revolutionary Simone Weil memorized George Herbert’s poetry, especially the poem “Love;” to repeat to herself as a way of fighting off migraine headaches.  … to her own surprise the poem became a prayer: “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” She felt at that moment of intense physical pain “ a presence more personal, more certain, and more real than of any human being.”

Here is that poem (not in the book):

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’           15
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

My natural desires, I now see, are pointers to the supernatural, not obstacles.  In a world fallen far from its original design, God wants us to receive them as gifts and not possessions, tokens of love and not love themselves.  I have learned to pray, following Augustine, not that my desires be quenched or taken away, rather that my scattered longings be gathered together in their Source, who alone can order them.

C.S. Lewis once made the observation that the tug of two worlds in humans could be inferred from two phenomena: coarse jokes and our attitudes towards death.  [Comedians] make jokes about excretion and reproduction. …  These two “unnatural” reactions hint at another world.  In a way unique to our species, we are not fully at home here.

Chapter 3 – Paying Attention

If the soul could have known God without the world, the world would never have been created. Meister Eckhart

Too late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new. St Augustine

Celtic spirituality speaks of “thin places” where the natural and supernatural worlds come together at their narrowest, with only a thin veil between them

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

Our very bodies react when we pay attention. At Orchestra Hall I leaned

Simone Weil

forward, moved my head from one side to the other, cupped my hands behind my ears, closed my eyes. Simone Weil says, a poet encounters beauty by intensely fixing attention on something real. So does a lover. Can I do something similar in the inner life with God. I need not always search for new insights, new truths; “The most common place truth, when it floods the whole soul, is like a revelation.”

Five hundred years ago the Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola delivered an oration that defined the role of humanity in creation. After God had created the animals, all the essential roles had been filled, but “the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.” To contemplate and appreciate all the rest, to revere and to hallow, to give mute creation a voice of praise—these were the roles reserved for the species made in God’s image.

Isaac Luria, a Hasidic mystic of the eighteenth century, proposed a system known as zimsum to explain the existence of suffering and evil as well as how God relates to his creation. To make room for the material world, God had to pull himself back and concede space, the space necessary for something other than God to exist. God poured his own essence in the form of light into holy vessels, which in turn would pour it down on the creation.

God’s voluntary withdrawal, however, made possible the emergence of opposing forces, including evil. A cosmic catastrophe occurred, introducing confusion into creation. Some of the sparks of God’s light returned to their source; what remained within the broken vessels, or “husks,” fell onto every animal, vegetable, and mineral part of the world. The resulting creation, said Luria, now shields God’s holy light, hiding it from view. Or, in another metaphor, creation retains the “smell” of God as a wineskin retains the smell of wine. Skeptical, unseeing people can even deny that God exists. Believers have the task of releasing the holy sparks from the husks. We do so through a process of “hallowing,” and all of us have a part to play in this process.

…hallowing is a deliberate, ongoing process. I do not gain a new set of supernatural eyes that enable me suddenly to see the world with perfected vision. Every day, every hour, every moment, I must exercise my calling to hallow God’s creation, whether it be leather-back turtles in Costa Rica or the irritating kid next door who peppers my yard with golf balls. Holy sparks are potentially trapped in every moment of my day, and as God’s agent I am called to release them.

John Calvin urged his followers to heed a “universal rule, not to pass over, with ungrateful inattention or oblivion, those glorious perfections which God manifests in his creatures.”* To abide by that rule requires a training of spiritual senses akin to how naturalists develop their physical senses.

[We must] hold every isolated thing in high regard whatever their use, to treat them gently, to take care of them well whatever their age. It leads us to become part of the holiness of the universe by recognizing each and every element of it as a spark of the Divine…. We are part of a holy universe, not its creators and not its rulers. God has done the creating, God does the judging, and God waits for us to realize that…. Everything we are, everything that is said to us, everything that happens to us is some kind of call from God. In fact, everything that happens is God’s call to us either to accept what we should not change or to change what we should not accept so that the Presence of God can flourish where we are…. Finding God is a matter of living every minute of life to its ultimate. Joan Chittister,

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe…. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some subtle turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for. FREDERICK BUECHNER

Chapter 4 – God Loveth Adverbs

For three things I thank God every day of my life: thanks that he has vouchsafed me knowledge of his works; deep thanks that he has set in my darkness the lamp of faith; deep, deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to—a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song. HELEN KELLER

The Puritans had a saying, “God loveth adverbs,” implying that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results. They sought to connect all of life to its source in God, bringing the two worlds together rather than dividing them into sacred and secular.

This God, says Smedes, liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers. Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the Universe admired words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together, and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto and if he loved a Bach concerto think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his Kingdom of Justice and peace and happiness to the victimized people of the world. In short, I met the Maker of the Universe who loved the world he made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition.

The theologian Urs von Balthasar suggests that we think of ourselves as being engaged in a “theo-drama.” We accept that we are but actors in the play, not the director, and in fact we must listen carefully to the whispered stage directions. In a good play, even the most minor characters serve a purpose essential to the plot, and in the drama on this planet the unique role that is mine only becomes clear as my life unfolds. We succeed by following the counsel of the director, who alone knows how each part fits into the whole.

Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things … as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value. PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN

Chapter 5 – Designer Sex

It is precisely because of the eternity outside time that everything in time becomes valuable and important and meaningful. Therefore, Christianity … makes it of urgent importance that everything we do here should be rightly related to what we eternally are. “Eternal life” is the sole sanction for the values of this life. DOROTHY L. SAYERS

Part Two – Signs of Disorder

It is not we alone, it is not the house, It is not the city that is soiled, But the world that is wholly foul. T. S. Eliot

Chapter 6 – Out of Order

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. SIMONE WEIL

In short, if there is another world out there, shouldn’t this one give more evidence of it? Obviously, a great rift has opened up between the ideal world Christians describe as God’s creation and the world we actually inhabit. We stand at the edge of a precipice and peer into a fog for guidance. Some enthusiasts wave their arms and point, convinced of a reality beyond eyeshot, but the rest see only the milky white of clouds. Christians explain the rift with a three-letter word, “one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime,” as novelist Evelyn Waugh put it. [sin]

” There are two ways to get enough,” said G. K. Chesterton; “one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

Chapter 7 – A Word Unsaid

Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. G. K. CHESTERTON

Something in me recoils against that word sin… Yet who can doubt that the world has undergone a kind of breakdown, the cosmic counterpart to a psychological breakdown in an individual. As a species we have lost a sense of self and of meaning, and we struggle to put life together in a coherent whole. A sly, chronic disease prevents us from relating to creation and each other, let alone God, as we should.

Malcolm Muggeridge expressed the subtle danger of sin this way: Christianity … does not say that, in spite of appearances, we are all murderers or burglars or crooks or sexual perverts at heart; it does not say that we are totally depraved, in the sense that we are incapable of feeling or responding to any good impulses whatever. The truth is much deeper and more subtle than that. It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways— in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgement by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practice.

At various times, the church has hammered away at “original sin” while ignoring the presence of an original grace in which God provide the cure for sin even before it occurred.  That risky act of rescue – “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” – lies at the heart of Christian belief.

[According to Walter Lippmann writing during World War II] human nature includes what he called ice-cold evil; “The modern skeptical world has been taught for some 200 years a conception of human nature in which the reality of evil, so well known to the ages of faith, has been discounted … We shall have to recover this forgotten but essential truth – along with so many others that we lost when, thinking we were enlightened and advanced, we were merely shallow and blind.”

The liar’s punishment is not being able to believe anyone else. George Bernard Shaw

It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence. C. S. Lewis

Chapter 8 – The Good Life

God may reduce  you on judgement to tears of shame
Reciting by heart
The poems you would
Have written  had
Your life been good – W. H. Auden

Evil is unspectacular and always human
And shares our bed and eats at our own table – W. H. Auden

Chapter 9 – The Gift of Guilt

When other people commit them [sins], you are startled, But when you commit them yourself, they seem absolutely natural – Elspeth Huxley

Part Three – Two Worlds

Chapter 10 – Why Believe?

Talk show host Larry King was once asked the question, “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” King answered by saying that he would like to sit down and talk with Jesus Christ: “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.”

I have a physicist friend who doubts the evidence. “The worst physics is better than the best metaphysics.” He insists.  Matter, you can count on.  You can measure and quantify it and break it down into particles. Metaphysics deals with the unseen, that slippery world of first principles and invisible forces and regenerated souls.  Yet the books he gives me on modern physics seem to me more metaphysical than anything I read in Williams James. [From his books] I learn that consciousness plays a key role in physical reality, that quantum events depend on an outside observer, that measuring the spin of one particle may affect the spin of another billions of miles away, … that parallel universes may exist which influence us in ways we cannot detect.

I once heard a woman give a remarkable account of achievement.  … she gained renown in the male-dominated field of endocrinology.  … At the end of her story she said simply, “As I look back, this is what matters.  I have loved and been loved, and all the rest is just background music.”

To believe in the supernatural is not simply to believe that after living a successful, material, and fairly virtuous life here one will continue to exist in the best-possible substitute for this world, or that after living a starved and stunted life here one will be compensated with all the good things one has gone without: it is to believe that the supernatural is the greatest reality here and now. T.S. Eliot

Chapter 11 – Earth Matters

We see either the dust on the window
Or the view beyond the window
But never the window itself – Simone Weil

Chapter 12 – Eyes of Faith

One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all.  Another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth. William Law

In early 2003 the New York Times magazine published an article by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability rights attorney who suffers from a muscle-wasting disease. She hunches over, makes uncoordinated movements, has difficulty feeding herself, and gets about in a power wheelchair. The article tells of her confrontation with Peter Singer, a professor of ethics at Princeton University, often called the most influential philosopher of our time.

Johnson debated Singer on behalf of an activist group called Not Dead Yet, for Singer proposes that parents should have the right to kill their disabled babies so they can replace them with non-disabled babies, who would have a greater chance at happiness. Before agreeing to the debate, Johnson reflected on the terrible plight of being “sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist.” Singer, an atheist, sees the issue in terms of the laws of nature and utilitarian philosophy.

Also an atheist, Johnson gropes for the best response and defends her right to live what Singer considers an “inferior” life. Johnson’s article—more, her very life—offers a passionate, witty, and compelling defense of her right to existence, contrary to the principle of survival of the fittest. At one point she wonders, “Am I a person of faith after all?”

Charles Darwin himself did not shrink from the logical conclusions of natural selection. As he wrote in The Descent of Man, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

As Charles Spurgeon, the British preacher … expressed it, “His [Jesus] glory was that He laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respectability and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.”

Philip was a big fan of Jean Vanier. We have to understand that pure evil can exist in the middle of what appears to be a saint. And that is true of me as well as Jean Vanier. What he did in secret was pure evil while what he did in public was saintly.

The founder of the l’Arche homes for the mentally disabled, Jean Vanier, says that people often look upon him as mad. The brilliantly educated son of a governor general of Canada, he recruits skilled workers (Henri Nouwen was one) to serve and live among damaged people whose IQs register in the low double digits. Vanier shrugs off those who second-guess his choices by saying he would rather be crazy by following the foolishness of the Gospel than the non-sense of the values of our world. Furthermore, Vanier insists that those who serve the deformed and damaged benefit as much as the ones whom they are helping. Even the most disabled individuals respond instinctively to love, and in so doing they awaken what is most important in a human being: compassion, generosity, humility, love. Paradoxically, they replenish life in the very helpers who serve them.

Jesse Jackson tells the story of a visit to the University of Southern Mississippi. While touring the campus with the university president, he noticed a towering male student, six-feet, eight-inches tall, holding hands with a midget coed barely three-feet tall. His curiosity piqued, Jackson stopped to watch as the young man, dressed in a warm-up suit, tenderly picked up the midget, kissed her, and sent her off to class. The president explained that the student was a star basketball player. Both parents had died in his youth, and he made a vow to look after his sister. Many scholarship offers came his way, but only Southern Mississippi offered one to his sister too. Jackson went over to the basketball star, introduced himself, and said he appreciated him looking out for his sister. The athlete shrugged and said, “Those of us who God makes six-eight have to look out for those he makes three-three.”

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get, and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under the cross than under a delusion. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” Paul says, faith says—the faith that ultimately the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, the lunacy of Jesus saner than the grim sanity of the world. FREDERICK BUECHNER

 Chapter 13 – Practicing the Existence of God

… for this was all thy care –
To stand approved in sight of God,
Though worlds judged thee perverse – John Milton

At one hearing [of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the end of apartheid] , a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it. The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement. Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle. W. H. AUDEN

Chapter 14 – Stereoscopic Vision

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve. ALBERT SCHWEITZER

C. S. Lewis, who died the same day as John F. Kennedy, delivered a sermon in Oxford entitled “Learning in Wartime” as England was bracing itself for a prolonged war with Nazi Germany. He addressed a question that must have troubled all the students at Oxford in those days: How could they be expected to concentrate on subjects like classical Greek and mathematics and medieval English literature when the country, indeed the world, was facing such a crisis? “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” he asked. Gently, Professor Lewis reminded the students that a crisis such as war merely aggravates the situation in which we always find ourselves. For of course none of us knows when life will come to a sudden end; war merely increases the immediate odds. The question is not whether literature is worth studying in wartime but whether literature is worth studying at all. The wise person lives in awareness of time and eternity both, a dual citizen of the city of God and the city of this world.

In his memoir of civil rights days, God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh tells of a most unusual political encounter involving Fannie Lou Hamer and Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s running mate in 1964. Hamer, known to locals as “the lady who knows how to sing,” grew up as one of twenty children of an illiterate cotton picker. She courageously signed on to register black voters in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and was beaten senseless by local sheriffs. She eventually died from her injuries, but not before leading an alternate delegation from Mississippi to replace the lily-white slate of delegates at the Democratic Convention. President Johnson, wanting no negative media coverage to taint his nomination, sent Humphrey, the distinguished Senator from Minnesota and later a presidential candidate himself, to negotiate with Hamer. “What are you seeking?” he began, the opening gambit in any political negotiation. “The beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth,” replied Hamer, a devout Christian. Humphrey, taken aback, began to explain his predicament. He had impeccable civil rights credentials and would personally champion her cause in the White House, but an ugly scene at the convention could threaten the Democrats’ chances in November. Couldn’t she quietly withdraw her public demands and work with the party ticket behind the scenes until they got elected? Having survived beatings in a Mississippi jail just for registering voters, Fannie Lou Hamer had little feeling for the nuances of national politics. She replied: “Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’ m gonna pray to Jesus for you.”

A slave in South Carolina reported that slave owners forbade his church to sing, “One of these days I shall be free / When Christ the Lord shall set me free.” In a wordless protest, the tune became a favorite for slaves to hum as they worked, especially as the prospect of freedom seemed more and more likely. Booker T. Washington recalled that as the day of emancipation grew near, music grew bolder and louder in the slave camps, reverberating late into the night. “True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the `freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the `freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”

I hope you have been as moved by these last stories as I have been.

Eternity is Now in Session by John Ortberg

Book Summary

This book is the second book (The other was Is Reality Secular? by Mary Poplin ) I have read that get’s its title from a short phrase from Dallas Willard. Dallas was fond of saying “Eternity is now is session.”  And this book is all about bringing eternity, which is in all of our hearts, into the present practical realities of our life. Slightly less breezy than a lot of John’s other books, I think you will enjoy this. Read this summary and if it whets your appetite, read the book. The book combines (somewhat obtusely) two different threads I am pursuing: awakening to God’s presence 24/7 and exploring what “believing  in Jesus” really means.

This book touches on some very important topics:

      • What is the Gospel?
      • What does it take to be saved?
      • How do I become awake to God?
      • How do I leave my baggage behind?
      • What is the new mental map for my life?
      • What does union with God look like?

The book is not a deep dive into any one of these but will provide a helpful start and some very good resources to dig deeper into each of these.

Introduction – Are we there yet?

John starts the book with the phrase every parent knows: “Are we there yet?” I remember when our youngest was three and we were driving 1400 miles to Florida. As we stopped to fill up for gas after about 30 minutes she said: “Are we there yet?” John tells us that we have not grown out of this impatience:

We suffer from destination impatience. We rush through life, always in a hurry. To get to where, we do not know.

He sees behind that impatience a hunger:

… we hunger for more than just an infinite continuation of life as we now experience it…

That hunger, John claims, is for eternal life – which he defines by quoting Brenda Colijn as:

[Eternal life] is “primarily qualitative rather than quantitative.”

and Jesus:

… the entire New Testament … defines eternal life only once, with great precision…: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3 NRSV)”

Eternal life = Knowing God

John goes on and talks about the difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. We know our home towns through knowledge by acquaintance. We know the Great Wall of China (most of us) through knowledge by description. God invites us to a knowledge by acquaintance. Quoting Dallas Willard:

“Eternal life in the individual does not begin after death, but at the point where God touches the individual with redeeming grace and draws them into a life interactive with himself and his kingdom.”

Then John says that this has affected our view of the gospel:

We’ve shrunk [the gospel] down by making it solely about going to heaven when we die, and in doing so, we’ve shrunk God down too….

What if salvation isn’t mostly about getting us into heaven but about getting heaven into us?

Part 1 Rethinking Salvation

Chapter 1 Breaking News

John starts the chapter by talking about heaven and the essence of the Good News:

This is perhaps the real sinner’s prayer, offered before every forbidden act, word, and thought: “Don’t look at me, God.” In heaven, that prayer can be neither offered nor answered.

Quoting Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis respectively:

“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”

“the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

He defines the gospel in two ways:

Jesus’ good news – his gospel –  is simply this: the Kingdom of God has now, through Jesus, become available for ordinary human beings to live in.

This is Jesus’ gospel: God is present here and now. God is acting.

This definition actually solved a  dilemma I had when Jesus and later the disciples were proclaiming the “good news” long before Jesus death and resurrection.  (See Mark 1) What was the good news they proclaimed? N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited) first introduced this idea to me many years ago. They declared a good news that is different from the traditional understanding of the gospel. John tells us that from the earliest days of the church, the accounts of Jesus life were not titled: “The Gospels” plural or “The Gospel of Mark.” But rather, “The Gospel according to Mark.”

Pushing this idea that the gospel – the good news – is all about Jesus becoming King, John defines what he means by the kingdom:

[In defining the kingdom, Dallas Willard says:] Your kingdom is the “range of [y]our effective will.”

Abraham Kuyper

I was thinking of Abraham Kuyper’s most famous quote: “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” when I read this by John:

What is a two-year-old’s favorite word?  No. Their second favorite? Mine. They’re learning they have a kingdom. That’s’ kingdom language.

You may wonder, If the Kingdom has come in Jesus, why is the earth still a mess? Why are pain and suffering still with us? And the answer – which took the early church decades to come to grips with – is that other “kingdoms” remain.

The Good News is that a power has become available to increasingly turn us into the kind of people who naturally and recreationally do such things. [work through conflict; give sacrificially; be willing to come out of hiding; stop idolizing their job; etc]

Chapter 2 The Minimum Entrance Requirements

When I was about three months old in Jesus, I was at a youth meeting in Dr. James Kennedy’s church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The person leading the meeting asked if anyone wanted to have Jesus in their life. “Do any of you want to come to Jesus tonight?” I raised my hand. After the service, she came up to me and talked

Coral Ridge Presbyterian          It didn’t look like this in 1972

 

with me. At first she thought she had a new believer on her hand. What she didn’t know was that she had a word-smithing engineer on her hand. She told me that I only needed to ask Jesus in once. I only needed to “come to Jesus” once. I told her [the engineer talking] – “I raised my hand because I want Jesus in my life all the time. I want to come to Him everyday” John opens this chapter discussing how we often mis-represent what it means to “come to Jesus.”

John points out something that I missed in Jesus’ exchange with the rich young ruler: Mark uses the words saved; the kingdom of God; and eternal life interchangeably. (Mark 10:17-26). He then starts defining salvation:

[Salvation is] not about relocation; its’ about transformation.

John says that “Jesus invites us to run the ‘Great Experiment.” “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:17)

Now we begin to understand why the “minimum entrance requirements” question is such a problematic approach to salvation.

G. K. Chesterton

John likens that to a groom saying “What are the minimum requirements for maintaining my husband status?” “In our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right” quoting Fleming Rutledge. John goes on to talk about how we are a big part of what is wrong with the world. This reminds me of when (not ever verified) G. K. Chesterton responded to a question in the London Times that invited readers to answer: “What’s wrong with the world today?” with the response: “I am.”

Ortberg notes that “We are saved for shalom – a flourishing life with God. What are we saved from?” John recognizes that we are rescued from the “whole chaotic mess that is our existence. … But it’s the inner disorder of persons that the biblical writers say is our deepest problem. … We are saved … from evil.”

Commenting on the meaning of Jesus name: “He will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21), John tells us that “the Bible says Jesus came to save us from sin itself.” And further, “’Christ doesn’t save by going around handing out tickets to heaven. He saves by giving himself.’” Quoting Patrick Ramsey:

Being overcome by evil is the ultimate tragedy that can befall a human being, and nothing else comes close.

“… the deadly illusion that obedience is something we do for God’s sake rather than because it is the natural way of life for Jesus’ disciples” is one of the traps that we fall into as followers of Jesus.

Chapter 3 – Follow Me

Simply put, discipleship is the means by which we learn to live the life that Jesus offers. Christianity was never intended to produce Christians. Just disciples.

In this chapter, John introduces two ways of seeing if something is “in” or “out” of a set. The “bounded set” determines who is in and who is out by a clear set of requirements. A bounded set of circles cannot include a triangle. A “centered set” is one where the objects in the set are defined by their orientation to the center. The set of bald people has a membership that is not static. You were in it when you were born; then you were out; and now you are back in the set. Also, the number of hairs on your head, a finite number, is subjective in terms of whether you are in the set or out. No one has defined what the minimum requirements for baldness are. John goes on to say:

That is why, when it comes to the question of who is in with God and who is out, Jesus and the New Testament consistently focus on the center, not the boundaries.

There is an old tradition on large Australian ranches located on often-dry land that there are two ways of keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence; the other is to dig a well. What a gift it might be to a world that has become increasingly polarized and politicized if the church would be utterly committed to Jesus as our center. No fences to keep others out, just the life-giving water of Jesus, drawing people ever close to his presence.

Building off Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about the “golden circle” where a company or a movement has three concentric circles. The outer is the “what” and the next circle is the “how” and the third is the “why.”

The church’s “what” is to make disciples, or apprentices. The “how” is by learning to be with Jesus and learning from Jesus how to live like Jesus. … Dallas Willard defines the “why” like this: “There is no problem in human life that apprenticeship to Jesus cannot solve.”

Part 2 Walking with Jesus

Interlude

“There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Willa Cather

John begins this section by talking about human stories and introduces the connection between story and our journeys. The common story is where

… an ordinary character leaves home to enter a strange, unknown world. The character faces dangers, toils, snares, they die and are reborn; they are delivered; they are saved; they come home. This story, retold a thousand times, never grows old because it is our story.

Obedience to Jesus in all things is the journey, but we will see, obedience is a far more creative, proactive, grace-power, intelligent way of life than is normally thought in our day.

Chapter 4 Awakening – Seeing God Everywhere

“when [the disciples] became fully awake, they saw his glory.” Luke 9:32

John explores what it means to be fully awake to God in this chapter. I am reminded of Greg Boyd’s book Present Perfect where he describes the practice of putting “Are you awake” post-its around his house and on his sermon notes. He of course was asking: Are you fully awake to God in this moment?

But what does it mean to be awake to God? First, do we even know that we are asleep? John (through Lewis) claims that we under under an evil enchantment:

“… you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years…”  Here C.S. Lewis captures in prose what he describes of the children in The Silver Chair. The children were captured by an enchantment that prevented them from seeing reality as it really is. Only by stomping out the source of the enchantment could they become awake to the true reality.

But what does this awakening look like? John quotes Evelyn Underhill:

According to Evelyn Underhill, awakening is “primarily an unselfing.”

But how do we become awake to God? John says:

Awakening usually starts with getting things wrong.

John then begins to define what intimacy with God is like. He starts by defining what our real lives are:

Dallas Willard said that persons are made up of experiences. We don’t consist merely or even primarily of cells and tissue; our real lives are a series of experiences.

Intimacy is shared experience. … When you invite someone to share an experience, you’re inviting them into a little step of intimacy.

John then uses C.S. Lewis words to describe our hunger for intimacy:

We do not want merely to see beauty. … We want … to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. … Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

If the summary of this chapter feels a little disjointed, it is because, in my reading, this chapter is a little disjointed. John is touching on a topic of great interest to me. But he doesn’t tie the ideas together. And he doesn’t dig deeply enough. Suffice it to say, we are under a spell and need to be awakened to God. But not just awakened to see God but to be awakened to become intimate with God. And to do that requires a dying to our old self.

Chapter 5 Purgation – Leaving Baggage Behind

Purgation is having the hell burned out of you.

This chapter is built around the story in Luke 5 where Jesus tells Peter to go out in the boat and let down his nets. After protesting, Peter does what Jesus asked. Then when a large catch is made, Peter tells Jesus to depart because he [Peter] is a sinful man. Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid because He is giving Peter a new vocation.

John tells that the road to purgation starts with awareness of a higher standard. And then a submission to a higher authority as Peter said: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5) The question before us is: “Are we moving toward or away from God.” Purgation helps us to move toward God. John lays out the steps towards purgation:

  • Confession – John quotes David Brooks who claims that we are moving from a culture of humility to a culture of the Big Me. “For instance, in 1950 when Gallup asked high school seniors if they considered themselves very important, 12% said yes. Fifty-five years later, 80% considered themselves very important.” I think this misses the point. I feel that I am very important in God’s eyes. Not very important in the eyes of others. And not very important in my own eyes. So because God’s eyes are what matters to me, “I consider myself very important.” In this section, titled “Confession” John doesn’t talk too much about how to do confession – just the fruit of confession. He describes a pastor who was caught plagiarizing his messages and when he confessed, John noticed not depression but lightness. “It’s actually lighter to be known for who you really are than to be admired for who you’re really not.”
  • Remorse – “It is often taken as a sign of health to say, ‘I have no regrets.’ But any sane human being is full of them.” “Purgation is always about freedom. … [Through purgation] I am free from my compulsions and free to think and want more interesting things.” John connects purgation with repentance.
  • Making Amends – “seeking to set right what you have done wrong.” “Making amends is not a violation of grace; it is a means of grace.” John points out that the 8th and 9th steps of the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is to “first become willing to make amends and then (as possible) to actually make them.”
  • Forming a new intention – When Peter confessed to Jesus (Luke 5), “Jesus doesn’t deny Peter’s sinfulness, but he gives him a new vocation, a new intention – to become the kind of person who can spread the kingdom.” He quotes Neal Plantinga (a good Friesian name) “A spiritually sound person disciplines her life by such spiritual exercises as prayer, fasting, confession, worship and reflective walks through cemeteries. She visits boring persons and tries to take an interest in them, ponders the lives of saints and compares them to her own, spends time and money on just and charitable causes.” Ortberg goes on to say that “Engaging in these disciplines helps us each day to purge those parts of our lives that are not in alignment with Jesus and to walk closer in step with him.”

John ties these steps back to his fuller understanding of what it means to be saved:

Salvation is more than simply a declaration of legal status [you are going to go to heaven]. We are … part of the Universal League of the Guilty. We don’t pretend perfection. We don’t get discouraged by setbacks and relapses. But we are on the road.”

In the class Barbara and I took on this book, the instructor laid out 5 steps to help us move toward God:

    • Gratitude – recall events from your day that made you smile with gratefulness.
    • Review – recall events from your day where you felt most aware of God’s presence and a desire to move toward and with Him
    • Sorrow – recall times during the day when you felt distracted from God’s presence and intimacy, times when you felt you were moving away from God and running your life on your own.
    • Forgiveness – humbly ask God to forgive your times of distraction from His presence.
    • Grace – ask God for the grace you need to live more moments tomorrow with the ability to feel God’s presence and love more clearly

Pastor Steve (who led the class) said that three biggest hindrances to intimacy with God are

    • Busyness
    • Fear of what God will ask of us
    • Guilt / Shame – He concentrated on how purgation can address this.

Pastor Steve also said (in discussing the spiritual disciplines in general) “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” I thought that was a helpful catch phrase.

Chapter 6 – Illumination: A New Mental Map

To hold to a doctrine or an opinion with intellect alone is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. George MacDonald

John defines illumination as:

… the word for the process by which we come to see and think differently.

He provides a great illustration about how this happened to Helen Keller describing her illumination to a world of words that connected with reality. The illustration is from Helen’s book The Story of My Life. I want to read that book!

His main point of the chapter seems to be that we have disconnected belief from practice. For example, Jesus did not say:

“Believe the right stuff about me, and eventually you might want to follow me.” He said, “Follow me, and eventually you’ll come to believe the right stuff.” He called people to make following him the center of their lives. … Illumination doesn’t simply mean believing certain things about Jesus. It means coming to believe what Jesus himself believed.

This was a big jump from what the quote from George MacDonald says. MacDonald says real belief is what we live by. Now Ortberg is saying that real belief is believing what Jesus believed. He doesn’t really develop this jump except to point to a book by Richard Hays (The Faith of Jesus Christ). The central premise of that book is that the phrase translated ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ is best translated ‘the faith of Jesus Christ.’ Ortberg says that this means living our life “by the faithfulness and belief system of Jesus.” I have spoken about  this extensively (asking the question Why the preposition in the Greek in Galatian 2:20 is there:

“And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.”

I have downloaded the sample of Richard Hay’s book and will probably buy it – so look for a summary in about 6 months. Ortberg doesn’t really develop this idea either and I’m not sure how it fits with illumination.

Commenting on Jesus “pop-quiz” with Peter and the disciples (“Who do you say that I am?”), John says that:

Jesus’ main vehicle on earth is going to be the church (“upon this rock, I will build…”)

Jesus’ main problem on earth is going to be the church (“Get behind me Satan…”)

Again – the chapter is a bit disjointed with a number of great ideas (illumination / believing Jesus belief system / etc ) that are not tied together or explained.

Chapter 7 – Union

Union does not mean the extinguishing of the self; and it does not mean the gratification of the self. … Rather it is the participation of the self in the life of God.

In this chapter Ortberg discuss the following big concepts about union with God:

    • Abiding – “When we abide, we make a home (our abode) in a place. We linger there, and our inner person gets shaped by our abode. We can abide in fear. We can abide in ambition. We can abide in anger. We can abide in lust. Or we can abide in God.”
    • Participation in Christ – “Paul never talks about how to become a Christian, but he does talk about being “in Christ” or about Christ being in us … more than 150 instances of the phrase.” Quoting Richard Hays: “Paul’s readers have come to participate in the story of Jesus.”
    • The Vine and the Branches – “when I’m off the vine, my thoughts are like anchors. They weigh me down constantly. Am I successful? Why doesn’t X like me? What if I need more money? On the vine, we take in God’s thoughts, God’s life. Greed and fear are replaced by gratitude and confidence.”
    • The Lord of the Dance – “We were made to dance. When the dance is done right, you can hardly tell where one person stops and the other starts. They have become one. And yet each feels more fully themselves than ever.”