Monday, June 23, 2008

Modern Babel

The Old Testament scares me. Weird names, fantastic stories, and a God who frequently frightens me. For these reasons and so many more, my wife and I have been casually walking through the OT at the beginning and end of each day. Personally, I think it's silly to run away from something you either don't understand or are afraid of; so we press on. Reading through the OT chapter-by-chapter has its adventures and doldrums. Some days we read genealogies and others we ponder in silence the magnificence of the Hebrew text. Most days we end our reading with more questions than answers.

This morning we were in Genesis 11, which oddly enough contains a story and a genealogy...we were in the double-bonus round. The chapter begins with a story about all of humanity speaking a unified language and working together for a common goal. Nothing strange there, just themes that could be found in an Obama address. The story goes south when God sees the "children of man" building a tower into the heavens. What follows is a confusing statement from Yahweh that left me rereading the passage several times over:

"And the LORD said, 'If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.'" (Gen. 11:6-7)

Why would God do such a thing? His behavior seems comparable to the bully at school who sees you dominating a healthy game of Jenga, and then knocks over the carefully stacked blocks for a few laughs! Was God afraid of modern progress and an impending industrial revolution? Is Yahweh a spiteful God who likes to watch his creation scramble like ants under a magnifying glass? I am no Hebrew scholar and my OT is weak at best, but I think I understand God's motives and it fits well with the entire scope of the OT.

Early on in the OT, Adam was charged with a guilty verdict and it wasn't because he enjoyed fruit from a naked chick. It's pretty-well understood that Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, so they took the apple and ate. The apple itself wasn't evil, it was the motive for eating the apple that plunged humanity into ruin. All of humanity, from generation to generation, cannot help but replace God with themselves or deficient deities. It's no wonder Yahweh establishes the first commandment to be "You shall have no other gods before me." We cannot resist the temptation to be all-powerful and all-knowing.

When Friedrich Nietzsche penned the prophetic words, "God is dead...," he was responding to modernity's influence on the world and the church's inability to create or offer values in such a movement. In summary, Nietzsche developed the concept of the √úbermensch (Superman) and made it the goal to which humanity should ultimately strive. Humanity was to progress past silly ideas like God and create its own values, replacing God in a creation role and thus rendering Yahweh (and other deities) useless. Man replaces God and becomes the Superman.

In Gen. 11, God is trying to prevent history from repeating itself when he destroys the Tower of Babel. Adam and Eve couldn't resist the opportunity to become all-knowing and consequently all-powerful. The same temptation is present in the unified building of the tower. Remember God's words, "If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them." God wasn't afraid of building projects or construction sites, He knew if they could create a tower into the heavens they would believe themselves to be the supermen of their day. There would be no need to search for a creator God because they had become that God. It would be anachronistic for me to blame Babel's fall on modernity, but modernity is certainly the culprit in God's modern-day demise.

I'm not afraid of modernity, or any cultural phenomenon, and neither is God. I live with a scientist, so I love science. I have lived with a philosopher and I love philosophy. I'm not so naive, however, as to think I can use modernity's disciplines to build my way into the heavens. I will always discuss the mystery of God and search out answers while on this planet, but eternity is beyond me and modernity. The so-called definitive evidence of modernity is less-than conclusive and satisfies a man-made burden of proof. Babel fell because humanity is prideful. Humanity continues to fall because we refuse to admit our limitations and conceive of a being more knowledgeable, powerful, and loving than our minds can imagine. Think freely and do not be afraid...

Monday, June 2, 2008

I doubt it

I struggle with doubt. I sometimes feel I understand Rene Descartes when he began to doubt everything until he came to his infamous conclusion, "Cogito Ergo Sum" (I think therefore I am). Call it the curse of overthinking because I just can't leave some things alone. When a pastor preaches on Adam and Eve I can't help but spuriously ask whether or not they were real or just characters in a play? If a string of coincidences favor my way and clearly display God's handiwork in my life, I will question the coincidence. I am convinced that if God came to me and revealed his very form I would even then find a way to cast doubt on the experience as time passed. What is faith if I cannot stop doubting?

I recently read a debate between up-and-coming atheist Sam Harris and the pop-pastor Rick Warren. They exchange blows to each other's beliefs and, at one poignant point, Harris questions whether beliefs are really unbeliefs? When addressing Islam, Harris points out to Warren that, on the issue of Islam as a religion, they both stand "in a relationship of atheism." The Californian pastor fires back, "We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God." They have certainly centered on the real question, "Is atheism a lack of faith in God or belief that there is no God?" I have been wrestling with this very question, not in relation to atheism but to my own doubt. When I doubt am I expressing a lack of faith or am I believing something different about God than what I had beforehand?

If you read the entire Harris v. Warren debate, you will find that Harris emphatically expresses belief at various points in the discussion. Both men are trying to interpret the world around them through evidence, experience, and bias. After reading the article in its entirety, I have concluded that atheism is a set of beliefs and unbeliefs. Similarly, when my doubt peeks its head, I am interacting with beliefs about God and his character as well as unbeliefs about what I have known him to be. It is at this crucial pivot point where my experience is ushered to center stage.

My friend John Wilson once told me the greatest encouragement to his faith was the experience of his conversion. "The reason I continue to believe," he would tell me with great intensity, "is that I was once a certain way, living a certain way, and not wanting to change, then God interrupted my life with love and now I am heading in the other direction." Truth be told, John was a rebellious jailbird when he met Jesus and now he is an incredible family man and soon-to-be scholar. He would invariably follow his story with John 9:25, "though I was blind, now I see;" a quote from a blind man Jesus healed.

We frequently turn faith into this magic feeling we must always maintain or else face the terrible judgment of God. More often faith is presented as an act of remembrance in the life of a believer. In Psalm 103:2-3, David writes, "Bless Yahweh, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit..." David goes on to declare the wonderful things God has done to interrupt his world with love and mercy. He further reminds man how small he truly is in view of eternity (vv. 15-16). Faith as an act of remembrance is what Robert Robinson had in mind when he wrote in "Come thou fount," "Here I raise mine ebeneezer, hither by thy help I come." An "ebeneezer" is a stone of remembrance whereby the Israelites would remember God's help.

My friend John proudly carries his ebeneezer stone of remembrance. When my faith is in peril, as it has been for the past five months, I need only return to "mine ebeneezer" to remember the God who rescued me from darkness. Beyond my conversion, I can bear witness to countless blessings and times when God has intervened to show me his unending love and affection towards me. What is your ebeneezer and when is the last time you sat before it? Gal. 2:20.