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Sometimes a Light Surprises

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings.
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation
And find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow, 
We cheerfully can say
"Let the unknown tomorrow
"Bring with it what it may."

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people too.
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed,
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet God the same abideth;
His praise shall tune my voice,
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

--William Cowper, 1779

COVID and the Scientists

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Throughout this year, most of us have been bemused by the varying claims made about COVID-19 by various scientists in various countries:  “Coronavirus isn’t a big deal.”  “No, wait, it’s a HUGE deal!”  “Well, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal after all.”  “It can only be spread by person-to-person contact.”  “Actually, it can be spread by surface contact too.”  “Really, surface spread doesn’t happen very much.”  “Singing in groups is deadly!”  “Singing in groups is probably OK.”  “Chloroquine might help.”  “Chloroquine is POISON!”  “We don’t actually know whether chloroquine will help or not.”  And so on.

To anyone who pays attention to the human race, the above confusion probably isn’t very surprising.  Scientists are people too, and people err in their reasoning all the time.  We like to reach strong conclusions by extrapolating from inadequate data.  We all have biases, and those biases affect our reasoning, sometimes dramatically.  Pressure from our superiors can shape our results as much as the evidence does (Chinese doctors and scientists, holla!).  All of those factors, plus many more, whether working singly or in combination, produce mistakes.

I don’t say all of these things because I am anti-scientist.  Indeed, I am pro-scientist, just as I am pro-the rest of the human race.  Indeed, I acknowledge that I myself have made mistakes.  I remember both times vividly!

That was a joke, by the way.

It should lead us, though, not to put too much faith in the conclusions of scientists.  For some reason, many of them feel like “I don’t know and can’t tell,” is an unacceptable answer, so they opine with great certainty in areas where a little self-skepticism would teach them to be anything but certain.

Take, for instance, the vast body of scientific opining about the origins of the universe, life, and humankind.  We have real trouble figuring out COVID, a disease that we can observe right now and study experimentally.  How likely are we to be able to interpret correctly fragmentary evidence about events that many believe happened millions or billions of years ago? 

How about bias?  The chloroquine narrative has been driven by bias against a certain American president who has adopted chloroquine as his very own anti-COVID wonder drug.  It led scientists to embrace some fatally flawed findings because they led to the conclusion that said president was wrong.  Is it possible, just barely possible, that scientists who are committed to a naturalistic view of the universe (which necessarily excludes God) are predisposed to reach conclusions that justify their worldview?

How about pressure to conform?  The scientific establishment is staunchly Darwinian.  Dissenters who openly point to evidence for creation get denied tenure or get fired altogether.  Indeed, they often become the target of vicious personal attacks from their peers.  Could it be that scientists who like to eat and be on good terms with their colleagues will, whether consciously or unconsciously, toe the party line?

I will admit that unlike everybody else on Facebook, I am not an expert in virology.  However, I do spend some time trying to understand people (as any Christian should), and when I see virologists making the mistakes that people make, I am not surprised.  I also am not an expert on the fossil record, but if paleontologists as well made the mistakes that people make, that also would not surprise me.

Indeed, I only would be surprised if they didn’t.

Jesus and Progressive Enlightenment

Monday, June 15, 2020

When we read the gospels, it is often the stories that strike us as strange that have the most to teach us.  This is the case with the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26.  It begins like a typical Jesus miracle.  Someone with an incurable problem, in this case a blind man, is brought to Jesus for help.  In response, Jesus does a Jesusy thing (spitting on his eyes, laying hands on him) to heal him.

However, the miracle doesn’t seem to take.  When the man looks up, though he can see, he can’t see clearly.  Jesus has to touch his eyes before his vision is perfected.

Given that Jesus is the One who does all things well, this is bizarre.  How could He fail to heal someone perfectly the first time around?  Was the Master having an off day?

As is often the case in Mark, the answer lies in the context.  Mark always has a moral to his stories, but he almost never directly tells us what it is.  Instead, he arranges material thematically, so that an apparently unrelated story offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.

That’s exactly what is going on with the story of the blind man.  It occurs in the context of stories about incomplete understanding.  In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples mistake Jesus’ warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod for a complaint that they had failed to bring any bread on the boat.  In Mark 8:27-33, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, but he fails to see (get it?) that God’s plan for the Messiah was for Him to be taken and killed by His enemies.

I believe that Jesus could have healed the blind man in one shot, as He completely healed other blind men on other occasions.  However, He chose instead to use the blind man as a live-action parable, an illustration of the imperfect spiritual vision of His followers.

At this point, the disciples see some things.  They’re different from the hard-hearted and unbelieving Pharisees of Mark 8:11-13.  However, like the blind man after Jesus’ first healing, they don’t yet see clearly.  They’re focused on questions of physical nourishment instead of spiritual danger, despite having seen miracles in which Jesus produced practically unlimited quantities of food on demand.  They acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but they want to force-fit Him into their Christ-shaped preconceptions  rather than waiting for the unfolding of God’s mystery.  Jesus could heal physical blindness instantaneously, but not even the master Teacher could bring immediate enlightenment to the eyes of the heart.

Today, all of us are in the same boat.  We have God’s completed revelation, but our understanding of that revelation remains incomplete.  We may have read, but our spiritual vision still is imperfect.

Like the blind man, then, we must return to Jesus, acknowledging our need for His work to continue in us.  For us, it won’t take two passes, or even two hundred passes, but a lifetime of Him refining our understanding.  As Jesus points out in John 9:41, at the end of a different story about vision, there’s no shame in acknowledging our blindness.  The problems begin when we start thinking we already see well enough.

The Son of Man Will Come in Might

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Son of Man will come in might
And sit upon His glorious throne;
Dividing nations left and right,
The King will separate His own,
And to the blest He will declare,
“Receive the kingdom I prepared!”

“I hungered, and you gave Me bread;
“You brought Me water in My name;
“Within your homes, I laid My head;
“You clothed My nakedness and shame.
“To sickness and captivity,
“There too you came to care for Me.”

The just will say, “When did we see
“That You were hungry or in need
“And show You hospitality
“Or quench Your thirst, or clothe, or feed?
“That we should gain this great reward,
“What have we done for You, O Lord?”

And then the King will make reply
To those who followed His design,
“The brethren you did not deny,
“The very least of these are Mine,
“And all you did in charity,
“You did it also unto Me.”

Romans 13 and the Second Amendment

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Since I moved to Tennessee, one of the most obvious changes in my life has been a greatly increased interest in and appreciation of firearms.  I think that they’re valuable for any number of uses, from hunting to self-defense.

What’s more, I believe that it’s lawful for a Christian to use a firearm to defend innocent life, whether his own or someone else’s, from the lawless.  I argue here that Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek should be read in a context of refusing to resist governmental oppression from the Romans.  Nothing in Scripture prevents a disciple from using weapons for protection from criminals. 

However, this argument has consequences, and it particularly has consequences for our views of whether American Christians have the right to take up arms against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  At least some of the Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Jefferson) would have argued that we do.  In this case, though, it is the word of God, not the views of the Founders, that must guide our behavior.

Most Christians who have thought about the subject recognize that Romans 13:1-7 is the most relevant text here.  On their face, Paul’s words appear straightforward.  Christians are to submit to the government, full stop.  However, I have heard brethren argue that in the case of the United States, the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, is the true government.  Thus, Christians can “obey the government” by asserting their Second-Amendment rights against the villains in Washington who want to take away their guns.

There are two problems with this claim.  First, according to constitutional theory, the sovereign of the United States is not the Constitution.  It is the people.  The Constitution is merely an expression of the will of the people, as are the various officials elected and appointed under the Constitution’s terms.  Yes, there are checks and balances built into the Constitution to protect the minority from the majority, but if the people decide that the Second Amendment refers to the National Guard, or that it should be written out of the Constitution altogether, that is the right of the sovereign.

Second, and more tellingly, the Constitution doesn’t fit the definition of “the governing authorities” in Romans 13.  In Romans 13, the government brings wrath on those who practice evil.  It collects taxes.  It demands obedience from its subjects.  The Constitution does none of those things, so it doesn’t make sense to apply Romans 13 to the Constitution.  Instead, the clear modern analogue of the Romans 13 government is. . . our federal, state, and local governments—all those who make, carry out, and interpret the law of the land.  If they say, “Give us your guns!” and we say, “No!”, we are resisting the lawful, God-established government.

Some might argue that Romans 13 does not require Christians to submit to tyranny, but according to our definitions, all the governments of the New Testament were tyrannical.  They beat, imprisoned, and even executed the innocent without a fair trial.  They imposed taxes to which the taxed had not agreed.  The Roman Empire ruled by the swords of the legions, not the consent of the governed.

Oppressive?  Yes.  Unjust?  Yes.  The government to which first-century Christians were to submit?  Also yes.  Indeed, one of the great overlooked themes of the gospels is Jesus’ desperate attempt to persuade the Jews not to take up arms against Rome.  Christians may sometimes be forced to obey God rather than men, but they are not to be the architects of civil disorder.

I sympathize with the Christians who want to hold on to their guns, no matter what.  I think it’s good public policy for them to be allowed to do so, and it accords with the priority that God’s word places on protecting the vulnerable and weak.  When my daughter moves out of my home, I want her to take with her a firearm that she knows how to use, so that she can defend herself in the hour of desperate need. 

However, our hope is not and must not be founded on these things.  If we are blessed with the opportunity to live under a just and well-ordered government, we ought to be thankful.  If we are not, we must remember that God, not ourselves, is our ultimate hope for justice.  If we assert our rights at the expense of honoring Him, we will have made a bad bargain. 

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