Monday, September 1, 2014

Seeking the Truth while Denying its Reality

I participated in a discussion group on “Spiritual Practices.” It was enlightening. I discovered that for everyone there, spirituality was merely a matter of either discovering oneself or connecting to an impersonal force.

Although there were some differences expressed, they largely agreed that spirituality wasn’t a matter of objective knowledge/truth, but rather experience/feelings. Objective spiritual truth didn’t exist. It wasn’t like the external force gravity, which did have an independent existence. Instead, spiritual “truth” or awareness came from within and just pertained to oneself.

I asked the speaker, “If spiritual ‘truth’ only pertains to oneself, why are we even here discussing the subject? After all, what you discover about yourself will not pertain to anyone else.”

He admitted that this was a problem, but then re-asserted that he didn’t think that there was any “recipe for living.”

Another jumped to his defense: “There cannot be any timeless spiritual truths, since everything is in flux. Change is the only truth.”

I wanted to answer, “Well, if everything is in flux, wouldn’t this also include your statement? Wouldn’t this ‘truth’ of endless change mean that your statement will only pertain to this moment?” However, I didn’t want to be too confrontational. Most of these people were really very lovely and gentle souls, unlike the people I have encountered at atheist meetings. In comparison with then, I saw myself as harsh and pugnacious. I didn’t want them to think me overly offensive.

It struck me that their rejection of any objective, universal, and unchangeable spiritual truths was quite limiting and counter-intuitive. Most would have probably admitted to the existence of the laws of science, while denying any laws of the spirit or morality. However, it became clear why they had such a disdain for spiritual truths. To them, it represented doctrine or dogma – something coercive and highly offensive.

Anthropologist Karen Brown, who wrote about her full-body dive into the embrace of Voodoo, helps us to understand the aversion towards doctrines/beliefs:

  • No Haitian — certainly not Alourdes [the Voodoo priestess] — has ever asked me if I “believe” in Voodoo or if I have set aside the religious commitments and understandings that come from my childhood and culture. Alourdes’s approach is, instead, pragmatic: “You just got to try. See if it works for you.” The choice of relinquishing my worldview or adopting another in its entirety has therefore never been at issue.” (“Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn!”)

While experience is not threatening – it is me-centered – beliefs and doctrines are experienced as coercive and centered on objective truths outside of ourselves. They imply a moral obligation to live according to these truths.

The group expressed their disdain for outside authorities, organized religion, and the “us vs. them” inherent within organized religion, as they painted a picture of their spiritual life.

Meanwhile, I was waiting my turn. I would give my testimony. I wasn’t too worried about that. Instead, I was more concerned about my inner poverty. I wasn’t touched by their confusion, their lost-ness. (Lord, help me! Even though I am not worthy of Your slightest grace, You have placed your undying love upon me!)

They failed to see that by rejecting the fruits of the mind in their spiritual search, they were also rejecting all hope of finding. By rejecting the mind, they were limiting themselves to sensuality and experience, perhaps like a mere animal. However, to hide this fact, they talked about living in the “here and now” as their spiritual goal. But life consists of more than the “here and now!”

By turning off the mind, they make themselves vulnerable to every form of demonic deception and confusion. For them, spirituality is an attempt to accept the uncertainty and lack of any real answers.

However, we need answers! We make hundreds of moral decisions a day, each one requiring an answer. How then do they manage? They must put their flight control on “automatic,” because there is no pilot at the helm.

Without any expectation of finding moral or spiritual truth, they scale back their expectations, but call it “getting in touch with self or a universal consciousness.” But what can they learn from this contact, apart from experiencing self? There are no truths to learn. Nothing to take away from their experience apart from a “knowledge” of how to find this experience again, like a squirrel who rehearses where he has buried his acorns. How then can they raise children or provide guidance to a friend?

All were intent on finding happiness, but for them, it was merely a product of finding “our own spiritual voice,” through a sensual form of self-knowing. Nevertheless, some expressed the realization that our behavior will impact how we feel. However, even here, they were reluctant to associate peace with conforming to moral laws or principles. They were confused!

I was next and gave my testimony:

  • Spiritual exercises never worked for me; neither did my five highly recommended psychologists. For decades, I had been severely depressed, and this was followed by panic attacks. I was devastated.

I then told them about my life-changing encounter with Christ. To my great surprise, they didn’t bark-me-down but asked probing questions. The inevitable question finally emerged:

  • When you refer to “Christ,” you are merely referring to your own experience, right? You’re not suggesting that He’s the truth for everyone, are you?

I answered:

  • I must believe that He is the Truth. That He really loves me, protects me, forgives me, and will bring me home to be with Him in paradise. If I didn’t believe that this is the truth, I could not live with any joy or confidence.

I was amazed that they didn’t start screaming at me, lunging at me with knives. Instead, they even thanked me for sharing. Please pray for these blind “seekers.”

Self-Forgiveness: Is it Possible and should it be?

“I don’t need a god to forgive me. I can forgive myself,” she proudly declared.

Could she, really? It never worked for me. Maybe it did, but just marginally and for a short time. It was like giving myself positive-affirmations. They proved to be drugs, and I always needed a higher dose. Afterwards, they stopped working, but not after they had addicted me to my inflated affirmations and blinded me to the truth about myself – that I wasn’t the wonderful person I had coaxed myself into believing in. This addiction left me with a sense that I really didn’t know myself – who I was and how I should live life authentically.

Self-forgiveness partakes in these same costs. For one thing, it has a short shelf-life. It quits working! It’s also an exercise in self-delusion, which alienates us not only from ourselves but also from others. (Only when two people share the same fantasy can they find common ground for relationship.) It deludes us into thinking that we are not that guilty and prevents us from taking a complete and accurate inventory of ourselves. Instead, we make excuses: “everyone gossips and lies!” This will place a lid on growth and meaningful relationships.

Well, what is the difference between sociopathy and self-forgiveness? In both cases, the ultimate goal is to walk away from our misdeeds without any sense of guilt or shame. But is this a good thing? Should we forgive ourselves and what are the costs if we succeed?

What if I cheat on my wife? Can I simply tell her, “I feel fine since I have forgiven myself?” This response is not only ridiculous; it will not bring healing to the relationship.

The alternative is to find someone else to forgive us. My wife’s forgiveness is crucial, but it doesn’t cover all the bases. We seek other forms of affirmation. The psychologist is paid to do this. In response to my free-floating shame and self-loathing, they reassured me, “You are really a decent person. You care. I know many who don’t care.” After a while, these predictable “professional” responses also lost their impact.

Nevertheless, we are designed for relationship. (It’s the difference between masturbation [self-forgiveness] and sexual intercourse.) Therefore, the words of a friend or a group will penetrate deeper and more convincingly than self-talk. Nevertheless, these kinds of reassurances, although more gratifying than self-talk, never penetrated to the place of pain and self-loathing. They never healed.

Nevertheless, they too proved to be addictive. I required regular reassurance that I was okay – codependency! When I didn’t get my fix, I became resentful or jealous of the one who did receive it. The approval of others was just too important.

Consequently, because of the need for this approval, groups of teens or even adults commit crimes that they ordinarily would not do by themselves. When we depend upon others for our okay-ness, we sell off part of ourselves and become slaves. We are no longer able to live according to our own internal dictates.

Instead, what if we violate an objective, unchanging moral law when we do wrong? What if our wrongdoing is more than just a matter of violating a social or personal norm or standard? When we violate a physical law, there are very real consequences. Just think of what happens when you defy gravity by jumping off a building. You will break bones.

The moral law is equally tangible. When we murder someone, it feels like we have violated something far more substantial than a mere social taboo. If murder is merely a social taboo, why then would we continue to feel guilty about it? Even if we encircle ourselves by an entirely different culture - the society of thieves and murderers – we are still unable to escape our guilt and shame. Yes, such company might mitigate these feelings, but they could not eradicate them.

Besides, if these feelings are merely a matter of our former conditioning, we should be able to re-condition ourselves or at least swallow a pill to make everything okay. However, human history has shown that these feelings are integral to the human condition. To separate ourselves from them – if that were possible - is to become less than human. Perhaps, instead, we need to accept these feelings as reflections of reality. After all, we regard our seeing and thinking in this way. When we drive our car, we take what we see as reality and base our driving decisions upon this sensory feedback.

And so, what if violating morality is akin to violating gravity – both entailing some very real costs? If this is so, forgiveness requires more than self-affirmations or professional- or peer-affirmations. It would seem that absolution requires stronger, more tangible stuff.

The philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis argued that we have personal evidence of an objective moral law:

  • Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, “It’s not fair."

He automatically assumes that we all partake of the same, inescapable law:

  • If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. (Mere Christianity)

And so, if our feelings of guilt and shame are more than just mere feelings but a reflection of an unchanging moral law, then we have to listen to them as we would a fire-alarm. In the same way that a fire-alarm points to an external reality apart from the disturbing noise of the alarm, our disturbing feelings point to a moral reality that exists beyond our feelings.

It would be foolish to turn off the alarm and go back to sleep. Instead, we’d have to confront reality – the fire! If this is so, then we have to understand the message of our feelings, and shouldn’t dismiss them with a set of affirmations, like “there is no fire; there is no fire.” Instead, perhaps our feelings are pointing to a real moral problem that must also be addressed.

King David learned how to address this problem after years of burying it:

  • Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (Psalm 51:1-4)

Instead of self-forgiving, David took full responsibility for his sins and found relief. Elsewhere, he confessed:

  • Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered… For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer… I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Perhaps our emotional struggles are God’s way of reeling us in, revealing to us a deep-seated problem that requires examination. David was brought to his knees before God. He only found relief and forgiveness after he acknowledged that he had sinned against the Lord Himself.

Forgiveness, to have any meaning at all, must be understood as relational. So often, my confession to my wife and her forgiveness of me have been healing and restorative. If this is what forgiveness is meant to be – relational and healing – how much more does this principle pertain when we offend our Creator with our sins!

This doesn’t mean that there is absolutely no place for self-forgiveness. However, it is more correct to put it this way – receiving the forgiveness coming from the Other.  Our Savior wants us to know that when He has forgiven us, we are forgiven completely! To continue to punish ourselves for our moral failures denies the very thing that He has guaranteed – that He has paid the price in full.

If we refuse to accept this provision of grace, we condemn ourselves to an endless drudgery – our attempt to establish our own righteousness to compensate for our moral failures. As we attempt to lift ourselves up, we put others down, determined to prove that we are more deserving than they.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It is Impossible to Prove that Evolution is an Unguided, Naturalistic Process

Evolution is the poster-boy for the naturalism – the worldview that claims that you don’t need God to explain anything, since everything can be explained in terms of natural causation and science. Consequently, students are taught that God is irrelevant since the natural laws explain everything.

I encountered a young college student working on her master’s degree who told me this very thing. She had been raised as an atheist and therefore explained:

  • I don’t need to invoke an irrelevant deity. Science explains everything. Of course, we can’t explain everything right now, but evolution proves that science is all that we need to make sense out of this world.

While I don’t believe in macro-evolution – evolution of the big or vertical changes – I could tell that I would be wasting my time by trying to prove evolution wrong. So I argued these points instead:

  1. The theory of evolution in no way can prove that an Intelligent Designer wasn’t guiding the process. Evolutionists will counter by saying that evolution seems to be a design-less process with many dead-ends. They then reason that if a God had designed the world, it wouldn’t have progressed in this manner. However, in order to conclude this, they would first have to prove what a designed process looks like and how anything that deviated from their model could not have been designed. But admittedly, they do not know the mind of God or His possible reasons for doing things in a way that might seem chaotic to the evolutionist.

  1. Even if unguided evolution could be proved – which it can’t – it doesn’t prove that the existence of everything can be explained by unguided processes.

  1. Besides, evolutionists lack a detailed explanation for how anything – whether proteins or DNA – could have arisen naturally.

  1. Most damning of all, the evolutionist must appeal to pre-existing laws and properties, all of which give the appearance of design, harmony, universality and immutability. And there exists no natural explanation to explain these things. Besides, such explanations are impossible. Science cannot explain the origin of natural laws before “natural” causation even existed. As such, it makes more sense to invoke an intelligent and eternal Being to explain a universe that had a beginning.

  1. For naturalism to be considered a viable theory, it must be able to explain all existence. However, there are many things, in addition to the laws, that seem to defy a naturalistic explanation – DNA, Life, the Cell, Freewill, Consciousness, Objective Moral Law, Irreducible Complexity…

As a consequence of their fundamentalist attachment to the religion of nature-did-it, they see only what will agree with their naturalistic presuppositions and ignore the fact that their theory is fraught with many unsolvable problems. Meanwhile, the evolutionist has also stripped life of any inherent meaning or purpose other than the animalistic pleasures and survival.

The atheist listened carefully but didn’t answer. The conversation moved on, but I hope that some thoughts lingered on.

Christ, Race, Persecution, and Messianic Judaism

I know something about racism and its twisted fruit. As a youth, I couldn’t hide being Jewish. Our public school would make embarrassing announcements for the Jews, who had to catch the bus to Hebrew school, to line up in the hall. Hostile snickers would inevitably follow. What did the other Jews feel? I don’t know. They never mentioned it. Instead, they acted as if they never heard anything. But for me, this was nothing less than a reenactment of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, I stood there as at a firing squad, vacillating between shame and murderous rage. This was compounded as I was regularly pushed in the hallway and called “Jew bastard.” I was amazed that some Jews were able to simply laugh it off. Sometimes, I would explode and fight. Other times, I cowered in shame.

Going to school was fearful.  Even my Gentile friends distanced themselves from me when the anti-Jewish taunts would begin. I became convinced that they too secretly despised me.

For me, the world only had two kinds of people – Jew and Gentile, one a friend and the other a menacing enemy. History taught me that the Gentile would either kill me or try to change or convert me into something less detestable to them. And I hated them back. I couldn’t fight all of my classmates, but I could hate them and look down on them. I grew to love everything Jewish and to hate everything Christian.

When I heard that a Jewish family in my neighborhood had converted to Christianity, I was disgusted to the point of nausea. Nothing could be so shameful, not even if they were caught selling child porn.

My hatred of Gentiles – and I regarded Gentiles as Christian, since they all seemed to have Christmas trees – became more intense. I was convinced that they had a stench. It was difficult for me to get into an elevator with too many of them at the same time.

Eventually, I became a Zionist, convinced that Israel was the only place that Jews could live. I thought I’d be happy there. In some ways, it felt like home. I had family there and the streets were not named after Gentiles – no “Lincoln Rd.” or “Washington Ave.” – but they had sweet-smelling and familiar Jewish names. However, the happiness, community, and an all-encompassing meaning for life evaded me.

I reluctantly returned to the States several years later with a wife and child, yet still convinced that everyone was a secret anti-Semite. However, years later, I had a horrific chainsaw injury. In the midst of a pool of blood, I had a miraculous encounter with my Savior Jesus.

I knew that I had to go to church, but that lingering sense of nausea returned.
After taking a series of baby-steps, I succeeded in entering a church. While the congregants greeted me in a friendly manner, I was still convinced that they had a dagger under their belt that read “kill the Jew.” My feelings were so strong that they took captive all of my other perceptions of the lovely Christians I had encountered. Perhaps they didn’t stink, but I was sure that, at their core, they were the worst hypocrites.

Thankfully, there were no Messianic congregations in traveling distance, so fortunately, I had to tough-it-out in the exclusive company of Gentile believers, but the Word had begun its work within me.

Years later, I made my move to a seminary north of Chicago, and I began to attend a Messianic congregation in the vicinity, convinced that there I would find the close fellowship that I had been craving. Nope! Surprisingly, I felt more alienated there than in the Gentile congregations!

Meanwhile, the Lord had been teaching me the surpassing value of Christ – a value that transcended by light-years my tenaciously held Jewish identity:

  • Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

I had been looking back. My Jewish identity had given me a sense of superiority, and I now saw that this was contrary to Christ. Instead, I had been buried with Christ. It was no longer about me. It was all about Christ:

  • I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Yes, I am still Jewish. However, I am also a father and a husband. I have multiple identities, but, before all else, I am a child of the One who died for me – Jesus the Messiah. Consequently, when my Jewish brethren introduce me as a Messianic Jew, I laugh and gently correct them:

  • I am a Christian. Christ overshadows everything else, and I want the world to know it!

This has become my prayer for all persecuted people struggling to find their identity in Christ alone. To Him be all the glory!