Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Atlas Loved

I have a confession to make: I've been reading Atlas Shrugged.

When I started it, I wasn't looking to be convinced or to be able to easily refute it. Knowing that it's a controversial book for many reasons, all I really planned for was to learn. And I did!

One particular fact I noticed throughout the book is the complete irrelevance of the arguments most commonly brought up against it. Before reading it,  I had already seen it dismissed many times. But the dismissals all invariably depended on a fairly undefined sense of morality that Rand actively speaks out against in her book. What use is decrying it as evil if she is working from a different definition of evil? Not only that, but she takes great care to both define her morality (something her detractors often fail to do), and to show that it works.

Even though I agree with Rand on some economic policy, I am not fully convinced yet, for a few reasons. First is that the characters are ridiculously black and white. The world of Atlas Shrugged, and the characters within, are polarized to a frankly preposterous degree. While her core principles may hold true regardless, it's kind of hard to think of it as an accurate representation of humanity when literally every conversation is a long and detailed speech on morality and economics (though technically, she considers them the same thing). That doesn't disprove the novel at all: one can assume that the characters are merely representative of the two sides of human natures she presents, and divided in that way for illustrative purposes. It does make the characters' struggles rather less believable, though.

That is mostly an issue of presentation, but there is an issue I disagree with her on almost entirely: that of morality. There is an important distinction that needs to be made here: I do not disagree with her morality simply because I dislike it. It's not an issue of "that doesn't feel right", or "everyone knows that sort of thing is evil". Any effective disagreement on this matter must be defined, clear, and grounded in a rational philosophy/worldview. It cannot depend on an emotional response, because Rand has thoroughly refuted the validity of that kind of action. With that said, the basis for my disagreement is, of course, Christianity. The Bible presents a clear and defined moral standard that is very different from Rand's philosophy, based on the authority of God. She argues for selfishness and the pursuit of happiness as the highest moral virtues, while Christianity explicitly states that we must live for others, and work for the glory of God. But, while I disagree with her moral code, I actually agree - for the most part - with her standards. And here is how that fits in with Christianity.

I've stressed in the past that the most important attribute of Christianity is that it is true. Rand openly rejected this belief, claiming at one point that religion is a tool used to control the masses. However, truth isn't determined by how nice a belief is, or by how it is used by people who claim to hold to it. So I want to talk about how Christianity impacts Rand's beliefs by their own standards, assuming that it is true.

First of all, regardless of whether or not God is evil by her standards, it is very clear that He should be followed and obeyed, based on the profit motive alone. God promises an eternal and perfect bliss in exchange for obeying Him. Ayn Rand believed strongly in the gold standard. She believed it to be the best objective measure of value. But God uses a standard that cannot be competed with. He promises rewards in heaven based on service to Him. With a reward like that, there should be no question about devoting your life to Him, based on selfishness alone.

But God isn't actually evil based on her standards, anyway! Rand believes that societal position and wealth should be based on competence and production, and this is where God throws the scales completely off of balance. Not only is He infinitely competent, He has created everything! He controls all resources and production by His own right, having created them entirely on His own. This in itself wouldn't entitle Him to command us - Rand would have been harshly opposed to the idea that more productive members of society have an inherent right to command the less productive. Rather, as He owns everything completely by rights of creation, we can only use these things according to how He allows us. He even created our lives! In this case, He is only exercising His rights as property owner and landlord, and His control of us is fully justified.

This is where it gets seriously off the scale, though. Because by Rand's own standards, our continued existence on Earth is based entirely on God's undeserved mercy and love. That is diametrically opposed to what she would believe to be right, but it's true. We have absolutely no claim to anything God has created, and we can provide no services to Him that are worth what He gives us in return, be it our continued existence or the promised eternity in heaven. The scale is not just tipped in God's favour, it is entirely and completely owned by God. By Rand's standards, we have no right to exist. And this is where I remember one particular Bible verse: "We love because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19) If there is no other reason to love others and show mercy, this would be it: that God did so first, though we did nothing to earn it, nothing to deserve it, and never could. By right of ownership and by right of production, we have no right to exist, or to ask anything of God.

"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders-what would you tell him to do?"
"I . . . don't know.  What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?"
"To shrug."

We are held up by an Atlas who will not shrug. One who owns us completely, and yet loves us regardless. How can we do anything but try to show the same love He showed us?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Another old post - I actually had some trouble digging this one up, since I couldn't find it on my timeline.

I find it so easy sometimes to be distracted from the reality of Christianity. I don't mean its truthfulness, though I will admit to falling into that snare sometimes. I mean what Christianity truly is.

So often, you will see people say it is hateful, it is ignorant, it is wrong. And they will have so many examples of this. Attributing religion to terrible historical figures, pointing out the plain bigotry and hate expressed by many people today that they excuse with a thin shield of "Christianity", or even that popular statistic informing us that x percent of people in prisons identify as Christian. When tossed about enough, these claims can instil a genuine shame in the name of Christianity, and even a rejection on some level. Who would want to be a Christian - no, who would want to be religious at all when religion is clearly responsible for so much wrong?

Or, on the other hand, there is the soft soap Christianity. The kind you wash your hands with to make yourself feel clean on the outside. The Christianity that doesn't judge, that would never dare to condemn any action that society has deemed appropriate. The Christianity that doesn't make claims of right or wrong, but says all the Bible really says you have to do is love everyone - with the meaning of that word becoming less defined every day. Truth? Oh, that's a dangerous word. Everybody is right, in their own way, and we'll all go to heaven when we're dead.

Both of these brands of Christianity can seem tempting in their own way. The former lets you safely disregard it as a backwards relic of an ancient culture, while the second lets you putter safely through life with the assumed title of "generally good person". But if there's one thing they share in common, it's this: neither of them are Christianity.

True Christianity is never shown in popular culture. Because true Christianity is beautiful, but terrifying. It is a religion of love, but it promotes a love that tells people when they're wrong. A love that embraces the sinner as someone no better than us, equally flawed and equally forgiveable, but still flawed, and still in need of forgiveness. Christianity is Jesus saying "I am the way, the truth, and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father except through Me."

Paul never taught us that people are basically good, or that anything goes as long as it's consensual. Paul said "Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) He clearly makes a distinction between right and wrong, between holding to the standards of the Bible or of the world. And right after that, in verse 12, he says "'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but I will not be mastered by anything." There are things you can do, even things you are allowed to do, that you should not do. Not because of human standards, but because of God's standards.

But despite these standards, we are not told to look down on others for their sins. We are not told we are any better than the rest. Jesus Himself, the only human who ever lived up to God's standards, washed His own disciples feet - even the one who would betray Him! His life was an example to us, and it was not an example of arrogance, of pride in your own virtue or talent. Rather, He taught us that the greatest among us are those that humble themselves before God and man. He walked with the sinners and the tax collectors, the reviled and hated, and He did not say what they were doing was right, but He forgave all who asked.

True Biblical Christianity is not easy, and because of that, it is so simple to call other things Christianity. To hate it, or to disregard it all together. But Christianity is not found on a happy middle ground between these two extremes. It is found on a Rock: the only solid foundation in this world. It is found in God, and taught in His word. Don't let people fool you into accepting a different Christianity than what is true. These are labels for the sake of convenience. Straw men that are set up by the very people who hold to them, to distract from the real thing.

When I forget the reality of Christianity, remembering it can be so easy. As simple as reading a passage from the Bible, or even just listening to someone talk real, sound theology. Sometimes it's an easy transition, realizing that the Christianity talked about by the world falls so far short of reality. Sometimes it can be difficult to acknowledge, though. Because Christianity is hard. It can be hard to understand, and it teaches things that can be hard to accept. But it is also beautiful, and most importantly, true.

Monday, 18 November 2013

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." (1 Peter 3:15)

That's a well-known verse, and for good reason. Peter is telling the Christians who received his letter to be prepared to defend their faith. He's calling us to be Christ-like: Jesus always had an answer for those who questioned Him, often catching them in their own traps. His example was not just one of moral purity. He also showed how we need to be prepared to respond to the challenges that the world brings against our faith.

This is an especially important verse to remember right now, at the end of the Australian school year. Next year, there will be many young Christians going to university for the first time, entering a whole new environment. They will meet more challenges to their faith than ever, and some of them - probably a lot of them - will abandon the faith. It's a harsh reality, but one that needs to be acknowledged and kept in mind as we are thrust into a world that is so strongly opposed to a true gospel message. We need a reason for the hope that is in us, and we need to be prepared to answer for it faithfully, with the full weight of God's truth behind us. We need to have science, philosophy, logic, and history all backing up our statements.

And... I left something out, didn't I?

"But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." (1 Peter 3:15b-16)

...That's the tricky part, isn't it? People - myself included - seem to conveniently forget it whenever we're engaged in discussion with those who disagree with us. But the message is clear, possibly even more so than the preceding text. If we claim to represent Christ, and yet do so with vitriol and harsh language, then we aren't truly speaking the gospel. We are damaging the church's reputation with our pride. Jesus answered the questions brought to Him, yet He did so in such a way that when they put Him on trial, they had no real charges. He never insulted their intelligence, or resorted to cheap shots. He spoke the truth, and He did so in such a way that He was blameless of wrongdoing. It is just as important that we show the morality and love of Christianity as it is that we show the truth.

As you go out into the world and preach Christ crucified, remember to do so with your attitude as much as your actions, or you will be doing no more than inflating your own ego. To defend the gospel with hatred is impossible.

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

Monday, 11 November 2013

I have faith. But what do I have faith in?

I'll tell you what I don't have faith in.

I don't have faith that I will never go hungry. That I will never have a broken bone, or a broken heart. I don't have faith that I will be rich, or liked, or successful, or healthy. When I go to sleep at night, I don't have faith that I will wake up.

That's not to say that I don't think I might get some of these things, or that every time I sleep I fear for my life. It is quite likely that I will survive tonight, and many more nights to come. But I do not have faith that God will provide them, simply because I do not know if I need them.

The problem with humans - or, at least, one of the problems - is that we are limited in our knowledge. Not only our knowledge of the world around us, but also our knowledge of the future, and even of ourselves. I do know that if I don't eat regularly, I will go hungry. What I don't know is whether it is good for me to go hungry or not.

This is the essence of faith in God's work in our lives: not that He will provide what we want, but that He will provide what we need. Remember Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12? He had an affliction of some kind, and he asked God to remove it. But it stayed, because, as Paul realized later, it was there to teach him a lesson. Even Jesus was made to suffer throughout His life - not so that He would learn, but so that He could be tested, He could teach through example, and ultimately, so that He could take the punishment for our sins on us.

We won't be called to do that last thing, of course. Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient and complete. But we do still need to be tested, for a faith that survives only through comfort is no faith at all. We still need to provide an example to the world through our faith in suffering. And, like Paul, we still have much to learn that is best taught through trials and tribulations of all kinds. But we still suffer from a limited perspective: what Jesus knew, Paul learned, and we must learn too, is that what is best for us is so far beyond what we know.

So while I do not have faith that I will always be comfortable or content or happy, I do have faith that in all things, God will work for the good of those who love Him. What is good for us may hurt for a day, a year, or even a lifetime, but it will ultimately bring us closer to Him.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

I always get somewhat upset when people misrepresent the doctrine of hell, though it is common, and even understandable. However, the arguments against it fail to recognize key facts, and often rely on hyperbole, representing hell as "unjust".

This particular tactic falls short, however, because it appeals to a sense of justice above God, one which He must hold to. In other words, it appeals to an objective morality beyond both human and divine, something for which there is no basis, no argument other than emotional appeal - especially because the sense of a morality above humans is often used to point to the existence of God. To say it points to the existence of a being above God is an entirely arbitrary step with no evidence, that can only be used to condemn practices you're not personally happy about.

So the idea that hell is unjust because God is violating some superior standard is easy enough to disprove (and the notion that it is bad by subjective morality is self-contradictory). A more cogent argument, however, would be to argue that it is inconsistent with God, as He is described as loving. And what loving God would punish people?

C. S. Lewis provided an excellent response to this in his book Mere Christianity, as a natural extension of his using the moral argument for the existence of a deity. He said: 'The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is "good" in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not soft. It is no use, at this stage, saying that what you mean by a "good" God is a God who can forgive. You are going too quickly. Only a Person can forgive.'

Though he does not state it directly, something can be inferred here: hell is a natural extension of a moral standard greater than humans. If there is a law above us which we must obey, and we fall short, then there is no reason outside of those standards to assume anything other than punishment. To say that God would not condemn someone to hell because He is a loving God is to ignore His other attribute of a just God. The only reason we know that God has provided a way out of hell is that He has given us a specific path out in the Bible. There's no reason to assume that His love would completely supersede His justice outside of personal perspective. Punishment can be inferred from wrongdoing, salvation can be learned through the Bible.

So to say hell is unjust is essentially placing your own standards above God in some way. It's a rejection of authority, something I have talked about before.

One more thing that's important to note: people will often attempt to overstate the severity of hell, saying that people are "mostly good", and that "no one really deserves such a terrible punishment". Now, this is another example of placing your own standards above God. I cannot actually say how bad the punishment of hell will be. It is not my place to judge others, and it is even forbidden to make that kind of judgement. But what we do know is that the punishment will equal exactly what is deserved. So in the hypothetical (though impossible) scenario of a person doing only one bad thing in their entire life, they would only be punished for that thing, exactly as would be appropriate for the severity of the act. It is never stated in the Bible that everyone will receive the same levels of excessive torture regardless of the severity of their crimes. That sort of hyperbole is only used to discount hell, but has no place in Biblical doctrine. Rather, we are told that everyone will be judged according to what they have done, and that God is a just God. To say hell is more than what is deserved has no real grounding. No human could say exactly what punishment any individual might deserve, but we do know they will be punished exactly according to how they have failed in their standard.

I like to say that hell is just math, but heaven is grace. Hell is the logical extension of a morality above our own, and the punishment that might be received will be perfectly appropriate to the individual. Heaven, on the other hand, is only achievable through the grace of God, through the path He has given us. Salvation through His son, Jesus Christ. It's impossible for us to earn it, but that it is given to us anyway is a supreme example of love.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

I only desire freedom so far as it can be shown to be good or useful. Perhaps one of the greatest lies ever told is that of the value of freedom for its own sake. Even the most ardent supporter of liberty would acknowledge that your freedom ends when it infringes on that of another - to use a classic example, "my freedom to swing my fist ends with your face". Why is this limitation placed on freedom? Because of the authority of the individual over their own lives - and there, we can see the limits of freedom, for already we are submitting to some kind of authority. And the reason we submit to this authority is because the alternative is chaos, which is neither good nor useful. Of course, the goodness and usefulness of freedom can be shown in many practical ways, but freedom for its own sake? There is no foundation, only a very pervasive lie.

What, then, does this say about God, and how we must submit to Him? Well, if He is indeed real, then there can be no question that submitting to His authority is both good and useful. It is shown by the starkest contrast of all: heaven and hell. To reject God, or the idea of God, for the sake of your own personal freedom is foolishness, a philosophy that will lead to destruction. And to decry God as evil because He restricts your "freedom" is a philosophy based on nothing, an ideal that should be rejected as soon as it is seriously considered. Freedom for its own sake was the lie that trapped Eve, for she was told she could be equal to God, and thus "free" from Him. And freedom for its own sake is what drives sin to this day - rejection of God, wishing to follow your own path.

C. S. Lewis: "I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and obey."

Monday, 4 November 2013

There are three reasons to study theology, for having a "head knowledge" of the gospel. I would not say that any are more important than the others, but here they are.

The first two are related - to defend the faith against attacks, and to bring others to Christ. This could be summed up as instructing, whether actively to convert, or passively to defend. The third reason is to gain a richer understanding of your own faith. Like so many things in Christianity, these different reasons can work together in amazing ways. First, let's use it to look at sin.

It's important to understand exactly what sin is. Sin is, at its core, rebellion against God. It's not just about doing something which is "just wrong", but in showing that this thing matters more than God's commands. All sin is, in its own way, idolatry, because it places something else above God - usually some form of pleasure. This is why sin is bad: because nothing is above God. He is supreme, and to treat something else as more important than him is, simply put, blasphemy. So, the actions of sin are idolatry, which comes from a rebellion against God's supremacy.

How much more great does God's grace become? He is not just letting you off for violating some arbitrary rule designed to restrict you, but He is forgiving you for claiming that something which He created is more important than Him, the One who created both that thing, and you.

Knowing this then has two benefits: not only can you use it to explain the severity of sin, and why we must follow those rules, but you can use it to greater appreciate the grace of God in forgiving sin, and even better know why you must follow the law which He has laid out.

Another example, perhaps even more important, is love. Love, of course, is a word used to mean many things, but here I would say its true meaning is to seek what is best for that which you love. Consider that beautiful verse, John 15:13. "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." The purest expression of love is sacrifice, to seek what is best for your friends even at the cost of your own life. Love is more than just an emotion, it is an act, a commitment. When you say you love someone, you say "I want what is best for you".

Now, here's the clincher, and this ties back to my point about sin: God loved you, He wanted what was best for you, even when you actively rebelled against Him. When you committed the atrocity - and I say "you", because everyone has done it - when you committed the offence of claiming that something else was greater than God, when you pushed Him away and tried to reduce Him to something less than His own creations, He still loved you! He still wanted what was best for you. It's like being offered a choice between the basest of trash and someone's most prized possession, choosing the trash, and spitting in the face of the one who gave it to you, but multiplied infinitely, and yet God still loves you. He still wants to give you that most prized possession. Not only that, but when you understand the extent of His love - that He loved you so much He sent His own Son to die for you, despite the nature of your crimes, even though every sin you commit is spitting in His face, how can you help but praise Him?

This is theology. Knowing not just the existence of sin and love, but what they are, and the implications of this. The more you learn about God, about His grace and His love and even His justice, the more you can appreciate Him, and the better you can spread His word. It gives you both a deeper understanding, and a more solid foundation for your faith.

To dismiss "head knowledge", saying that all you really need is the love of God, is to miss out on so much of that love. Learning these things and thinking on them is itself a labour of love. It will bring you closer to God, and perhaps help to bring others closer to Him. Whether you study the Trinity, the role of elders in the Church, the real-world benefits to the 10 commandments, you will better appreciate God, and more importantly, be better able to glorify Him.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Another old one. Wasn't sure if I would post this, mostly since it's a lot shorter than the others, but I decided it falls into the same kind of post anyway.

The message that "God only gives you what you can handle" makes me somewhat uncomfortable because it's said so often, yet it's... pretty much exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches.

God doesn't test you to see what you're capable of, nor does he guarantee you'll be capable of everything you're put through. What the Bible does teach is that "I can do all things through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13) It also tells us that He uses the weak to shame the strong - the very fact that we're not capable in ourselves is used to His glory.

I think that often, the implications of that saying aren't fully realized. It can even be said by people who will quote the verse from Philippians with utmost sincerity. But it's dangerous, because God will give you tests that you can't handle, and we need to remember that all of our strength comes from Him. Trials aren't a test of merit, they are an opportunity to show the glory of God through your life.

Friday, 1 November 2013

This is an old post from Facebook. I'll be putting most or all of them up here eventually. Hopefully once per day, if I can remember.

I've been thinking a lot about purpose lately, both as an overall concept, and how it applies to philosophy and morality in general.

Purpose, at least by the definition I'm using, is something entirely unique to created things, as it is the reason that thing was created. It is entirely separate from function, which is what the creation can be used for. An example would be a knife: someone could create a knife for the purpose of the act of creation. However, after its creation, it could then be used for any function a knife could possibly have. In this case, its purpose is already fulfilled, but its function is separate from that. Another example would be if someone created a knife for the purpose of having something with all the functions of the knife. In this case, its purpose is fulfilled when its functions are used, and the two are tied together.

There is a clear dichotomy in science and philosophy for humans: either we are created, or uncreated. This has huge implications, because if we were created, then we have a purpose. I'll give two examples of this: first, of an unknown hypothetical deity, second, of the God of the Bible.

In the case of the hypothetical deity, say our purpose was a test of its power, similar to the example of the knife. In this case, our purpose is already fulfilled simply by existing, and our function is unrelated to that. This would have relatively little impact on our lives, as we would be free to live however we choose. Our purpose would not have any practical implications.

The second case is rather special, because if we were created by the God of the Bible, then we can actually know our purpose: to glorify God in all that we do, by following the commandments laid out in the Bible. In this case, our purpose is directly related to to our function, because our function is how we fulfil it. Our purpose is to serve God in what we do.

This actually presents an interesting case for why we should hold to Biblical morality. Possibly the most common argument used in favour is that of God's supreme authority, but this adds a new dimension: by following these commands, we fulfil the very purpose for which we were created.

The other end of the extreme is fairly simple. If we were not created, we have no purpose, only function. In a sense, this would let us define our own purpose, though it would not be the same as the purpose of a created thing. It would probably be best defined as a reason for why we live the way we do.

The idea of purpose is sometimes used as an argument for the existence of a deity. It's a generally accepted fact that most humans feel a sense of unfulfilled purpose. A higher cause for their life that they must fulfil. And the Bible, for example, directly addresses this, saying that we do have a purpose, and telling us what it is. This makes the question one of whether or not that feeling is a legitimate sense of purpose, or an illusory feeling that stems from some part of the human psyche.

Worth noting is that, if we are created, we are the only creations that can actively choose to attempt to defy our purpose. This raises the question of whether, by virtue of being able to do this, it is right to do so. I would say not, but perhaps it is just a matter of opinion. Maybe the authority argument is really the best option? I'm honestly not sure. However, at the very least, the prospect of a purpose that can be fulfilled provides a sort of incentive. (An alternative to this would be the question of whether free will even exists, and a discussion on predestination, and whether we are even able to deviate from our purpose. But that's another topic for another time.)