Recently, my family and I heard a radio talk that was addressing atheism as a worldview and specifically challenging the notion that science—that is, the hard sciences—are ground firmly held by naturalism (a synonym for atheism). We were listening to Ravi Zacharias’ radio show, “Let My People Think” on our way to church, but we came into the program a few minutes late; so I never did hear what this guest speaker’s name was, but he spoke with a cool-sounding Scottish brogue.
I thank the Lord that we were able to discuss the message for a few minutes before we got out of the car. This was important because, although this brother made some really good points, there were a couple of serious and central problems underlying his message.
I appreciated how well he argued against the idea that the Bible—and therefore, the Christian faith—is actually at odds with the disciplines of science. He is right to say that the two are not at war with one another. But I wish he had done a better job of identifying the true war. He said the real war is between two worldviews, namely the worldviews of atheism and theism. This is where I see trouble.
Allow me to show two big problems that come with a focus on a great battle between the worldviews of theism and atheism.
Problem #1: The Bible does not talk this way.
The Bible has very little, if anything at all, to say about atheism. When we read the Scriptures, we do not find them expressing great concern about atheism. In fact, I think, we do not find them even acknowledging atheism as a real position.
It is true that in Psalms 10, 14 and 53 David writes about the fool who says in his heart “there is no God.” But in context, it turns out that he is not describing a philosophical naturalism of the sort we are used to hearing from in our place and time; in other words, the psalms are not (merely) addressing the atheism of people like Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins, etc. Rather, he is warning against a practical or functional atheism. He describes people who live their lives as if there were no God. Such a class would include philosophical naturalists, of course; but it would include far more people who, although they would say they believe in God, live as if they didn’t. The psalmist does not bother to differentiate between an outright claim to disbelieve in the existence of God and a lived out denial of God’s relevance in life. It is all foolishness to him.
On the other hand, the apostle Paul writes something that definitely, if indirectly, says something about philosophical atheism. He says that it doesn’t exist. Take a listen…
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
— Romans 1:18-21
It is not a stretch at all to say that Paul denies the existence of atheism here. Both within themselves and through the creation all around them, all people are aware of God’s existence. However, they are clever creatures and have the capacity to fool themselves in all sorts of ways, including getting themselves to believe that they do not believe in God. But deep down they know better. As the apostle puts it here, they “suppress the truth.” Indeed, many who call themselves atheists are very intelligent people, despite the fact that they verbally deny the existence of the true Source of their minds.
So there you have it. God doesn’t believe in the existence of atheists.
More importantly, whenever the Scripture gets near to addressing the subject of atheism, whether philosophical or functional, it always speaks of it in terms of wickedness and foolishness. It is the latter aspect that I want to point out here. It seems to me that Christians and Christian apologists make a mistake in paying so much serious attention to atheism. The Bible mostly ignores it or, at most, thinks it utterly silly. Nowhere does the biblical text bother to make an argument for the existence of God because it is too busy dealing with real issues.
N.B.— I want to be careful and clear about something here. I do not mean to say that Christians should treat with disrespect those who espouse atheism. Not at all! Atheists are human beings made in the image of God, whether or not they want to acknowledge Him. As such, they must be treated with love and respect. But there is a difference between the atheist, whom we love, and the idea of atheism, which is just foolishness. Again, it is the worldview of atheism which I am suggesting should be viewed as laughable, while people who call themselves atheists should be loved and respected.
Problem #2: The lines are drawn in the wrong place.
To say that the real war is between the worldviews of theism and atheism, is to make another mistake. For it suggests that the goal—or at least one major goal—is to win the day for theism. But this draws the battle lines in the wrong place. If I help my friend move from atheism to mere theism, have I really helped him at all? I don’t think so. More likely, I have just helped him switch from one form of idolatry to another.
The real war is between Christ and all other gods. And what is behind all other gods is always the same thing—the idol of the self. It makes little difference whether my self-worshiping idolatry takes the form of Islam, Buddhism, Watchtower theology, naturalistic atheism—or even the dressing of evangelical Christianity. In the end, the only question that matters is whether I will bow the knee before Christ or continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (I confess that I actually do both, but that is a subject for another post.)
In my relationships with non-Christians, I am not interested in representing or making arguments for theism. I want to represent and be a living argument for Christ. I do not do this very well, I’m afraid. But in my heart it is what I truly want to do.
Christianity is for…
… losers. (Luke 9:24)
… weaklings. (II Corinthians 12:9-10)
… borrowers. (Philippians 3:9)
… sheep. (John 10:27)
… children. (Mark 10:15)
… babies. (Matthew 11:25)
… pushy people. (Matthew 11:12)
… irritants. (Luke 18:1-7)
… scum. (I Corinthians 4:13)
… haters. (Luke 14:26)
… outsiders. (Ephesians 2:12-13)
… fools. (I Corinthians 1:27 and 4:10)
… failures. (John 13:37 and 18:25-27)
… me. (John 1:12)
I have cheated, but I am not a cheater.
I have stolen, but I am not a thief.
I have lied, but I am not a liar.
I am a liar, but I am not a lie.
I have fought, but I am not a brawler.
I have gone mad, but I am not a madman.
I have betrayed, but I am not a traitor.
I have killed, but I am not a murderer.
I am a murderer, but I am not death.
I have been drunk, but I am not a drunkard.
I have sinned, but I am not a sinner.
I have worshiped idols, but I am not an idolater.
I have committed adultery, but I am not an adulterer.
I am an adulteress, but I am not unwed.
I wander, but I am not a wanderer.
I fail, but I am not a failure.
I am a failure, but “failure” is not who I am.
I cheat, I steal, I lie.
But I am not these things.
I fight, I go mad, I betray, I kill.
But I am not thus defined.
I drink, I sin, I do idols, I commit adultery.
But my identity is not therein.
I wander. I fail.
But these are not my name.
I cheat, but Christ is fair.
I steal, but Christ gives away.
I lie, but Christ is the Truth.
He is the Truth, and He speaks me.
I fight, but Christ is peace.
I go mad, but Christ renews my mind.
I betray, but Christ is faithful.
I kill, but Christ is the Life.
He is the Life, and I am alive in Him.
I drink, but the Spirit of Christ longs to fill me.
I sin, but Christ beats temptation.
I worship idols, but the Son leads me before the Father.
I commit adultery, but Christ is my Bridegroom.
He is the Bridegroom, and I will never be unloved.
I wander, but Christ is the Way.
I fail, but Christ has overcome.
He has overcome, and I conquer in Him.
Christ knew no sin. I know it well.
Christ becomes sin. I become God’s righteousness.
Christ is in me.
I am in Christ.
All is new.
I have found a new theological hero… Or perhaps I should say heroine. I am reading a book by Marva J. Dawn titled Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. So far, it is fantastic!
Here is a brief bit of the excellent mind of Dr. Dawn:
It makes an enormous difference in the way individuals and churches live, if we recognize that the entire atoning work of Christ (including his life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension) has already made the cosmos his. Then our political involvement operates not from the need to change things, but from the desire to make clear what really is the case.
That is just a small sampling of the great stuff I’m reading in this book. Slow reader that I am, it will be yet some time before I finish this book. But I so enjoy Dawn that I have already picked up two more of her books. They are:
Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church
Joy in Our Weakness: a Gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation
As is obvious from a quick scrolling down this screen, I have done very little blogging in the past many months. Nowadays, though, I have a new and better excuse for this “negligence.”
Thursday, September 22nd, was the day before this year’s autumn equinox. And on that day, I began a new job. It is my return to full-time construction work after ten years of being out of it.But it is not only a return to something old, it is also a trip into something new. I have never worked where I had to wear a hard hat, safety glasses, and “hi-viz” clothing (bright orange or neon yellow-green). Nor have I ever had to follow so many safety restrictions. There is some ladder work, but mostly we use scissor-lifts for everything. There is no walking around up on high structures without being tied off with safety harnesses and so forth (which, as yet, has not happened, because we are just now rolling joists for the second floor). I was in a pretty good amount of turmoil and trepidation, as I anticipated the call to work from this new company. The last time I put in a 40-hour week of tough construction type work was in 2001, right before I began teaching full-time at Heritage Christian. I was 31 years old then. I am 41 years old now (42 in a couple of weeks). There is a big difference between the two… at least for me.
A fairly small example of the kind of thing I refer to here would be my hands. They are once again rough and dry and cracking. That’s familiar old stuff that comes with the territory when working out in the weather. But now they are also constantly falling asleep and tingling to the point of pain because, as far as I can tell, my elbows are pretty constantly enflamed and pinching nerves that run down my forearms to my fingertips.
So I guess I am an old dog trying to do a young dog’s tricks. On the positive side, I suppose I am a bit wiser and a little less likely to do dumb stuff to “prove” myself on the job. So that’s good.I understand a bit more about life. I am a little less rattled, a little less concerned with what people think. I want to walk with the Lord, and whether people respect me or not mostly matters to me only as it serves to glorify Him. That Thursday and Friday—those first two days of work—were pretty terrible for me, though. I was in agony from head to toe. The following Monday, it was a little less intense. And as I made my way through my first full week, I found my ability to withstand the beating of the workday was growing by quite a bit. Now, I find I am fatiguing only in the last hour or so of the day. And the drive home still finishes me off pretty well. I hope to get a bit more stamina yet, so that I still have some gas in my tank when I get home. For all this difficulty, things definitely could have been worse. Since I knew about a month beforehand that I would be receiving a call to work from this company, I asked my friend Jeanie, who is a fitness instructor, to help me figure out a work-out to get ready. She gave me a simple core strengthening work-out, which I did at least four or five days a week leading up to my call to work. And since the job started, I have still done the work-out on weekends and some of the key stretches every morning. It has been a life-saver. (Thanks, Jeanie! )
The advent of this job seems to have been very serendipitous. The Lord seems very clearly to have put it all together for me. I hope I am honoring Him in it.
I sent in my résumé to this company called Carpentry Plus a long time ago. And then one evening in August, I received a phone call from them. I was told to show up for an interview at 10AM the next day at their shop in Eagle Creek. When I got there, I met the younger member of a father-son team who own and operate the company. He told me that they were Christians and that they are trying to run their company in a way that honors the Lord.
Anyway, the job itself is the constructing of a new elementary school on the hilltop in West Linn. I don’t know the exact name of the school, but it apparently has the word “Trillium” in its title. I took a couple of pictures on my second day of work and then several more yesterday (Oct. 7th).As I mentioned above, this is new to me in many ways. About half the guys I work with now are also kind of new to it, though they, like me, have other construction experience. The other half have been doing this commercial construction for a long time. Understandably, they can sometimes mistake my lack of experience with some of the tools, terminology and practices of this kind of construction with a lack of construction experience altogether. But I think that is getting better too.
I don’t know how much I will be able to add new posts to TLW in the weeks and months ahead, but I thought it would be good to take the time today to put this one here to explain what’s going on with me these days.
All in all, I am very glad for this opportunity. The pay is good—very good. It is good to be part of the work force again, to be working hard to support my family again. I am thanking the Lord for His mercy and grace.
So lately, among many, many other things, I have been trying to get a handle on this thing called the “New Perspective on Paul” (hereafter, “the NPP”). I know very little about it, and what I do know, I’m not sure I understand all that well.
I am not going to spend time and energy right here and now trying to explain it very much. Anyone reading this post is certainly capable of doing their own search to find out more about it. But so that what I write here will make a certain amount of self-evident sense, I’ll jot a few sentences to give only the crudest picture of the NPP.
Basically, certain scholars in the last 20-30 years+ have come to read the writings of the apostle Paul in a very different way from the way Protestant Evangelicals have been understanding them since the time of Martin Luther and the other Reformers. James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, as I understand things, say that Luther and others misunderstood what Paul was actually talking about in his writing against the Jewish religion of his day. They say that his theology of justification by faith simply is not addressing the issues Luther assumed it was. Luther, they claim, was reading his own rather troublesome setting of the 16th century Roman Catholic world into the writings of Paul. A bit earlier than Dunn and Wright, E.P. Sanders apparently went so far as to say that Paul was, himself, in error about the 1st century Judaism against which he wrote.
Throughout the work of these scholars and others, there are discussions of what Paul really meant when he wrote about “justification,” “law,” “grace,” “covenant,” “salvation” and more. In the end, there seems to be little question that what is at stake in this discussion is the very nature of the gospel according to Paul.
Okay, so here’s what I’m wondering: Much of the battle between proponents and opponents of the NPP seems to take for granted a Literal-Grammtical-Historical (LGH) hermeneutic. But what of a Literary-Canonical guy like me? It is of little concern to me just what 1st century Judaism was like, except as it is presented within the context of Scripture itself. I am not particularly interested in figuring out how Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) understanding of Judaism (or any other subject) compares to that which historical scholars have decided was the actual nature of 1st-century Judaism. My concern is with the world of the text. I begin with the world of text and then ask how it informs this world of time-space-history in which I live, not the other way around.
I have developed my own picture of the apostle Paul by way of the Literary-Canonical approach to Scripture that I have had for the past 15+ years. I am not actually seeking to blaze new trails in Pauline studies, but to be perfectly honest, I do think that my own work on Paul is as deserving of the tag “new perspective on Paul” as that discussion which is widely traveling under that banner these days.
I’m wondering what bearing my work on Paul might have on this discussion.
More to come later… (I hope)…
It seems time for another almost post.
This time I am putting here a Word doc containing scans of the first chapter of a book. It also contains the relevant end notes from the book.
Wink – Engaging the Powers, chapter 1 (scans)
A while back, I picked up a trilogy of books by Walter Wink. These are their names:
Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (published in 1984)
Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (1986)
Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992)
The document embedded here contains scans of the first chapter of the third volume, Engaging the Powers.
I do not agree with Wink on some very important points, but I find his discussion here both informative and insightful. As far as I know, it is with Wink—and with this chapter, specifically—that the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” originates. (If someone out there knows differently, please correct me.)
Let me briefly identify a few points of departure between Wink and myself, so that anyone who opens and reads this chapter will not wonder whether I am endorsing those particular elements of his writing.
First, Wink does not seem to have anything like an evangelical view of Scripture as “inerrant.” I am not totally wedded to the usual fundamentalist ideas of inerrancy, but I do believe the Scripture is utterly reliable in all that it teaches. Wink is one of the many scholars who seem to think that the Scriptures contain elements of dross, i.e. cultural accretions which actually distort the message of God in the Bible. And like so many, he seems to think that heis fit to determine just what those elements are. So for example, in his zeal for values like equality and non-violence, he can be dismissive toward Bible passages that seem to him to promote inequality or violence. Yet at other points, he bases a great deal of his beliefs and argumentation on the authority of Scripture. Go figure…
Second, Wink seems to think that liberal democracy is the answer to the evils that he points out so well. I am not a hater of democracy. But neither do I share his faith in it.
A third difference is connected to the previous (and perhaps the first) one. Wink seems to be something of a Pelagian in his confidence in man’s ability to do the right thing and effect a truly good society, if only we can come to understand things aright. I definitely do not share such optimism with him.
Beyond these, there may be other differences which I am not remembering right now.
Having said all this, however, I still must highly recommend this chapter for doing such a great job of painting the historic and societal psychosis of violence that humankind has suffered under down through the ages.
As a teaser, I will offer here in a block-quote the opening paragraphs of the chapter. If you are intrigued and have the time, I strongly encourage you to open and read the whole thing!
Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. it has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us forty-five years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.
The roots of this devotion to violence are deep, and we will be well rewarded if we trace them to their source. When we do, we will discover that the religion of Babylon—one of the world’s oldest, continuously surviving religions—is thriving as never before in every sector of contemporary American life, even in our synagogues and churches. It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America. I will suggest that this myth of redemptive violence undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy, and that it lies coiled like an ancient serpent at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence since well before Babylon ruled supreme.