Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Being Special

If you missed CNN's God's Warriors, you can catch them again beginning tonight. I only caught a part of the first one, but folks I have spoken with said that Christiane Amanpour did a great job. I just returned home from a long, fun church day. We had our heritage Sunday. I delivered a sermon by Rev. Horace Cowles Atwater who was pastor at the church I presently serve in the 1870s. Great sermon. Intelligent guy. But dang, being chosen and fighting for God's cause was heavily present in his theology. Everyone has God on their side and can point to some "authority" to prove it.

What if we simply gave all of that up? What if we admitted...
  • that we don't know if God chose anyone...
  • that we don't know if God prefers (or "inspired") this book, creed, and worship practice over those of others...
  • that none of us likely knows what "God wants," and that your guess is as good as mine...
  • that we need to figure this all out for ourselves...
  • that it cannot be a good idea to commit ecocide in the name of God?
I wonder if the task for clergy for the next couple of centuries is to dismantle any special revelation regarding the will of God and all of the authorities that go with that revelation. Seriously, can anyone show me that the humanity is better off because of supposed special revelation?



76 comments:

  1. John this will not come as a real surprise but I disagree with some of what you said. Obviously I think the Bible is inspired and has authority. I would argue that the Bible makes your last point a priority.

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  2. "Seriously, can anyone show me that the humanity is better off because of supposed special revelation?" John is that really the right question to ask?

    Bonhoeffer in his little book "Christ the Center" points out that after the incarnation there is only one question that humanity can ask and that is to Jesus Christ and it is "Who are You?" He also points out that we can no longer ask the question "How are You?"

    And he goes on to state that even the question "Who are You" can only be asked where the answer is already known, in the Church.

    Bonhoeffer is pointing out that the Incarnation means that human reason reaches its limits when the Transcendent God enters human history in Jesus Christ. We can only come under his Lordship.

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  3. Or maybe we should ask Jesus "what Nationality are you?" I suspect many people think Jesus is American, a common hubris. This type of thinking, when combined with Bob's statement that the bible is inspired and has authority leads me to think that yes, we should give it up, this notion of bestowed godly authority, particularly in the area of divine revelations and nation states. I'm not buying that snake oil from any nation in any part of the world. I'm not America bashing either; on the contrary; our country is really on to something by separating religion and government and I wouldn't mind at all to see that sort of system of governance in other repressed theocratic nation states in the world. Meanwhile in our country however, some people want a return to theocracy it seems and we have a disconnect between our democratic values and our foreign policy. I'm tired of seeing bad foreign policy framed in religious terms.

    Yeah, today was fun by the way; nice pulpit-poundin' sermon, and it's always fun to sing Amazing Grace, and I even got to say hi to snad (hi again snad).

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  4. Hey Bob,

    The last point being ecocide? Bob, if whatever authority and inspiration you can find in the Bible to stop the potential ecocide, I am with you 100%. By the way, I think you would really get a kick out of Horace Atwater's sermon. I am going to put in on-line in a day or two.

    Viola,

    Well...I think there are more important questions humanity can ask, namely, what do we need to do so that your grandchildren will have a future on this planet.

    Bobby,

    So glad you got a kick out of the service today. I sure did! And I am glad Snad and hubby joined us!

    Theocracy. Rev. Atwater would have been against it. Despite his assertion that Presbyterianism is the best philosophy on the history of the planet, he understood it a great deal differently than the theocrats of today. He was all about civil and religious liberty, as he pounded out in the sermon this morning. Liberty from the state imposing on religion and liberty from religion imposing on the state.

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  5. John,
    Well yes there are other good questions that one could and should be asking, and one is about taking good care of the earth. But you were talking about God and revelation and authority and my reaction to what you said tends more toward dealing with God's final revelation Jesus Christ.

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  6. Wow! I really enjoyed today's sermon, John, and am humbled by the great welcome I received from people like Bobby and Donna, you, and many of the other folks I've gotten to know in 2007.

    Two things came across very clearly in Atwater's sermon, today:
    1) Religious freedom cannot exist when government dictates what that religion should be or how it should be followed.
    2) People can and should think for themselves!

    Of course, he was patting himself and his congregation on the back pretty hard at having been smart enough to pick "The Chosen" religion, but those two points were pretty clear, none the less.

    So, in light of John's thought about giving up the notion that we know what God wants of us, what do those two ideas mean for us?

    I see a point where individuals and governments can look at their actions, compare them to what they THINK God wants of them, and see if they really were the best thing for us to do - preferably BEFORE we repeat them. Sounds reasonable to me?

    As for Viola's summary of Bonhoffer, that "human reason reaches its limits when the Transcendent God enters human history in Jesus Christ", you may be proving your own point, because that makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever!

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  7. Let's remember that Presbyterians were always opposed to established religion. We never wanted a particular denomination to be the established religion of any state. Of course Presbyterians were never a majority in any of the states . . .

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  8. BTW I watched the repeat of God's Jewish Warriors tonight. Most Israelis are secular, not religious. One point that was not made clear is that in Israel no party can form a majority government on its own anymore. So a large party goes to smaller parties to form a government. And the religious parties are always just big enough to help form that government so they get what they want.

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  9. John,

    Your list cracked me up. You have these questions of legitimate theological and epistemological import. Then, just to make sure you've got the support you need, you tack on the last clause which really has little to do with the others. It reminds me of another list I saw in a different Presbyterian venue.

    Is humanity better off because of a claim to special revelation? You might ask Christopher Hitchens. What I do know is that you and your bank account are better off because of claims to special revelation.

    Last, I'm cracking up at your constant projection of your own agenda onto those you oppose. Conservatives don't want the church over the government, and they certainly don't want the government over the church. What you seem to want, though, is that the church not even govern itself (as a recent post shows).

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  10. Ooooh, what fun!

    Keep at it!

    Gotta take a shot at Chris. He linked to a post regarding Rev. Jane Spahr. Of course the church should govern itself. It always has and is continuing to do so. One of the key points of Presbyterianism is the freedom of conscience within certain bounds.

    Chris is less interested in the constitution, but far more interested in inquisition.

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  11. Viola,

    "God's final revelation in Jesus Christ."

    What could that possibly mean? That we have learned everything we can possibly learn? That God has nothing new to say?

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  12. Chris,

    I think Christopher Hinchens has made some very important points. God is Not Great is an important book.

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  13. Hey John,

    Sounds like you're up to fun things in Elizabethton. I've never tried preaching a sermon by an historical figure.

    I haven't read Christopher Hitchens book so I'll reserve judgment, but I have my doubts about it being anything remarkable. All the reviews I've read of it have been like this one. If it's anything like Dawkins' book, or Dennet's book it will be a lot more heat than light.

    Your list here seems a bit strange. I think I get what you're aiming at and I have some sympathies. Certainly the territorial nastiness that various forms of Christianity have often exhibited is something less than we're called to be, but your list here is like a laundry list of different doctrines: election, inspiration, the hiddeness of God, special revelation.. then it hops into, what, natural theology and stewardship? It's not that these topics are related, but that you've lumped so much together that it's hard for me to figure out precisely what it is you're complaining about. :P

    So what are you digging at?

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  14. John,
    At least one thing it means is that because Jesus Christ is God as well as human we are able to know what God is like in his love toward us. Because Jesus' life, words, death on the cross and resurrection reveal to us God's great love for humanity.

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  15. He was all about civil and religious liberty, as he pounded out in the sermon this morning.

    Yeah, I got that really; I'm guilty of generalizing a bit, plus it's just a small side-step to go a bit further in a bad direction with that sort of thinking. Pastor Bob's point that Presbyterians were always opposed to established religion is well taken; but it is still hard to listen to even a 100 year old sermon and not try to place it in a global context; it's a small world we live in, in 2007.

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  16. Hi Aric,

    I think the Hinchens book, as well as Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other "new atheists" are important reads. They point out what we religious folks do not admit often enough, that one does not need to be religious to be moral or ethical; in fact, from their viewpoint, religion can keep people from being moral or ethical.

    My point is that all appeals to special revelation are wrong. Special revelation is nothing but one's own ego writ large. God picked me. Or of all the religions/philosophies of the world, God chose me to choose the right one and I did.

    Because I am chosen and right and have the right book and the right religion, all others are wrong. They are a threat. They need to get converted or

    1) leave my church/mosque/synagogue,
    2) leave my country,
    3) leave my planet.

    My point on ecocide is not natural theology or environmental stewardship, it is the very real possibility that in your life time, perhaps even mine, we will destroy one another and life on Earth. It will be done in the name of religion.

    Let's take an obvious, easy issue. Gays. Folks point out that if it weren't for the Bible, they would grant gays equal rights. It is that darn Bible (special revelation from God) that prevents otherwise sane, reasonable people, from doing the right thing.

    Another example:
    Evolution. If it weren't for the Bible (special revelation from God), and its stories in Genesis, folks would "believe in" what science has demonstrated, or so the Bible-believers imply.

    One more:
    Jesus Christ. If it weren't for the Bible and the words of Jesus: "No one comes to the Father but by me", then folks would have no problems accepting people of other faiths. But because of special revelation, the "non-believers" will (no matter how nice, moral, or ethical they are) burn in hell.

    Special revelation keeps people
    1) Ignorant
    2) Filled with delusions of grandeur and
    3) Violent in the defense of ignorance and their sense of grandeur

    Tell me where I am not clear or am clearly wrong!

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  17. John,

    I agree that one need not be religious to be a moral person. In fact, statistical evidence suggests it hardly makes a difference at all. However, the books by Dawkins and Dennet (which I have read, as opposed to the Hitchens book I haven't yet) were so full of flawed arguments and vituperative rhetoric that I think they did more harm for their cause than good. In my mind they are no better than Dobson, Falwell and crew who say irrational hateful generalizations about people they disagree with.

    As for your argument here: it still seems to me that you are combining things like special revelation and election in a strange way, but I think I get what you're on about. I'll paraphrase my understanding of your point.

    "Because of excessive confidence in our special knowledge about God, or our special relationship with God, we do harmful things to other people. We would be better off getting rid of the ideas of special knowledge or special relationships."

    Okay, if this is what you're saying, I both agree and disagree with you. First, why I agree.

    People do horrible things in the name of religion. Christians do spend an awful lot of time playing the "who's in? who's out?" game. On many occasions this sort of idiocy is excused by claims to special knowledge or a special relationship.

    Now, why I disagree.

    People don't do these horrible things because of the Bible or because they believe they are chosen by God. People do these horrible things because people are totally depraved. It wouldn't matter if there was a Bible. Take it completely out of history and we would come up with countless other excuses for the same behavior. Most horrible acts being committed today are done for entirely secular reasons, especially the environmental destruction which has nothing to do with religion whatsoever, rather it is a result of our economic and political attitudes.

    In fact, where you see a person doing something horrible in the name of Jesus, you know for certain that that person has No Special Knowledge or Relationship to God whatever they claim. The evidence of election and faith is peacemaking, wound-healing, division-mending, justice-seeking and so on...

    Jesus Christ, who is our "special revelation" is the antidote to all of the problems you've mentioned not the cause of them. Trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is the very key which opens up the heart of the believer to a course of action which far from bringing more ignorance, delusion and violence into the world, is the light of the world.

    Ignorant, deluded and violent - these words describe what people are. Not what Special Revelation turns them into.

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  18. John,

    I'm interested in following the Constitution, beginning with the first half (the bulk of which is comprised of the Westminster Standards). I'm especially in admiration of the freedom of conscience clause that affirms our historical standards for unity in the midst of diversity.

    What I don't understand is how the church overwhelmingly says not to ordain practicing homosexuals and not to perform "same-sex marriages" but when a Covenant Network, Witherspoon Society, MLP, or TAMFS member does just that, they are practicing within their conscience, and thus within the Constitutional boundaries.

    I know for a fact that the laxness on this issue does not flow in both directions. I'm personally acquainted with five former PCUSA ministers who were tossed out over their convictions (not actions, but convictions). All of these had to do with their troubled conscience over womens ordinations. One said that he would do it, but it troubled him. Another said that he couldn't do it, but another MoWaS would be free to come and ordain women elders. (Deacons he had no problem with, as even Calvin allowed for female deacons - though of a slightly different character than the men.)

    This amounts to anarchy, and it's very troubling indeed because it shows that certain people don't trust the greater church and are willing to act against its specific and emphasized positions. Another group doesn't trust our processes because they see them used very selectively.

    I've always been of the mind that clear boundaries help us function more effectively and with less friction because there are standards of conduct that everyone is accountable to. I know that you share a passion for this too, as you want to see G-6.0106b removed because it appears to be used selectively against homosexuals. (And I would agree that it is selectively enforced - I rather see it stick and be fully enforced.)

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  19. Aric,

    Thank you for your response, summary of my position, and agreements and disagreements.

    As far the new atheist writers we mentioned, and there many others who are not as aggressive, I personally do not put them in the same category as Falwell et al. I don't necessarily agree with all or even most of what they say or their tone. I see them as important critics of religion and find especially truthful their critique regarding religions' claims to special revelation.

    First, a nuance: You wrote:

    "People don't do these horrible things because of the Bible or because they believe they are chosen by God. People do these horrible things because people are totally depraved. It wouldn't matter if there was a Bible."

    It is not the Bible per se, but the dogma of special revelation attached to it that is the problem in my view.

    I don't think homo sapiens are totally depraved. That dogma is also a part of the special revelation package. Was the Neanderthal totally depraved? Homo Habilis? What about our closest living relative, the chimpanzee? Homo Sapiens are a mixture as is life itself. We are capable of many things, good and evil. In fact, much of religion has been a good thing that homo sapiens have accomplished. Religion as a product of our work also has its bad moments. The bad product has been special revelation. In short, it claims a work (ie. Bible, doctrines, wisdom) of homo sapiens as a work of some perfect divine Being.

    The challenge is for us to increase our awareness and consciousness toward living in the present and future in such a way that brings joy, love, and life, for all species.

    I don't think appeals to special revelation will aid us in that cause, no matter how true these appeals may seem to us, nor even how good this "revelation" may be.

    Why? Two reasons:

    1) Special revelation relies on special revealed knowledge that is not available to all or to common methods of discovering truth.

    2) Special revelation is a deception that human creativity, insight, innovation, etc. is a product of some divine being rather than a product or our own struggles and experiences.

    3) Whose special revelation is right? I will throw this out to you and to other takers: Is the special revelation of Muslims (the Qur'an) as true as the special revelation for Christians (Jesus as presented in the Bible and Creed)? Through what appeal could you make that judgment, either way?

    4) My point is that we have reached a point in human history in which we are capable (and I would say obligated) to tell the truth about our human accomplishments and failures. I see no way except destruction to continue to lift up one's special revelation as true. I see a way toward peace, justice, and progress if we begin to admit that our accomplishments and failures (including religious texts and beliefs) are ours.

    5) I do disagree with your final point although I appreciate that you really believe it:

    "Jesus Christ, who is our "special revelation" is the antidote to all of the problems you've mentioned not the cause of them. Trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is the very key which opens up the heart of the believer to a course of action which far from bringing more ignorance, delusion and violence into the world, is the light of the world.

    Ignorant, deluded and violent - these words describe what people are. Not what Special Revelation turns them into."

    Jesus as packaged in Bible and Creed is a human invention. We are learning that through historical studies of scripture and human history. I know that sounds irreverent, but is not the Qur'an also a human invention? Or the TNK, or the Bhagavad Gita, or Shakespeare's sonnets?

    The Bible, creeds, and the Jesus within them are incredibly innovative and wise products of human imagination. But to say that this special revelation is the antidote to our problems is to me, picking out one small human invention and saying it is superior to all others. It is a part of the collective wisdom of humanity.

    Homo sapiens are not only ignorant, deluded and violent. We are also wise, conscious and peaceful. The choice is ours to choose one path or another. I think appeals to special revelation as the source of truth and goodness will lead us down the former path.

    Thanks my friend!

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  20. Chris,

    I guess that is why we have church courts to interpret the constitution as well as processes to amend the constitution.

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  21. John you wrote, "Jesus as packaged in Bible and Creed is a human invention. We are learning that through historical studies of scripture and human history. I know that sounds irreverent, but is not the Qur'an also a human invention? Or the TNK, or the Bhagavad Gita, or Shakespeare's sonnets?"
    John you should be loved, in the Lord, by believers, prayed for and cared about. But you are supposedly a Christian minister and that does make a difference.
    It doesn't matter how much your church members love you or even how good a guy the world sees you to be. If you really believe what you just said/wrote you are a false teacher and a wolf among the sheep. You are denying the Lord who bought you and are endangering your own soul and the souls of all those who trust that you are teaching what is good and true.
    You are not just some guy going to seminary but some guy who has taken vows to lead God's people as a pastor. I am weeping over you and those you lead.

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  23. Wow, John, Viola sure thinks you have quite some power over people's souls!

    Just thinking of the consequences of Viola's theology for a moment, I can see that she believes that someone might actually end up eternally damned simply because they had listened to the wrong teacher--such as you! If fate had given them someone other than you, who told them correct theology, they'd go to heaven instead. If this idea, that a mere twist of fate (who one happens to listen to) determines someone's eternal destiny, doesn't highlight how nonsensical this sort of theology really is, I don't know what does.

    The reality is that you raised a valid point about the role of the human imagination in creating scriptures of all the great religions. It is always easy to deal with uncomfortable ideas that challenge one's dogma by attacking the purveyor of those ideas as a heretic, which is just a way of putting one's hands over one's ears and saying "La la la la I'm not hearing you!". Attacking heretics and engaging in witch hunts is a time honored tactic for shutting down ideas that make one uneasy.

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  24. Man it must get old having people continually pulling their hair, weeping, and wearing sackcloth and ashes over your opinions!

    I agree that the Bible is just as historically conditioned as the Qu'ran and any other document. I agree that our knowledge of God or Jesus, or the Buddha, or angels is human and not revealed in some magical link with the supernatural.

    I think however, that you misunderstand Special Revelation in the same way that fundamentalists misunderstand it (though you draw the opposite conclusion). Claiming that Jesus is the Son of God (which is what I take Special Revelation to be) and that we can know God through Jesus and that this makes all the difference in the world for how we behave and what not is not a claim based on a belief in the Holy Spirit dictating scripture in the ears of the Apostles, or Gabriel coming down and telling secrets to humanity that we could never have arrived at otherwise. On the contrary it is the result of human reasoning backwards over events and discovering therein a meaning which in transmission has continued to revolutionize lives down through history.

    It is not about the Bible being unimpeachable or just accepting things which are completely irrational without evidence. It is about seeing that this truth, once taught, opens up new vistas of understanding which were previously unseen. Seeing in the crucified and risen Christ a savior for the whole world and the only son of God is like a telescope which enables us to glimpse distant galaxies and comprehend them.

    As for your confidence in progress and the potential of human beings for good we'll just have to agree to disagree here. I don't accept Total Depravity because it is a doctrine of the church, but because it seems to accurately represent the reality of human life and a world where there has never been a day in recorded history without a war going on somewhere. As for animals and creation - yes it is fallen too. In a redeemed creation hurricanes and tsunamis don't kill thousands and thousands every year. Total Depravity in fact isn't really a doctrine just for people, but a means of affirming that all parts of a person are affected just the same as creation is affected by sin. If we had intimate knowledge of animal psychology we would find the same to be true for them.

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  26. **If you really believe what you just said/wrote you are a false teacher and a wolf among the sheep.**

    Wasn't this in reference to people who say the right things but work against the orthodoxy? A wolf in sheep's clothing is someone who tries to blend in with the sheep. I don't see John trying to "blend." If John's upfront about his beliefs, then those who listen to him, or hear him preach, can easily make a decision on their own.

    ** I don't accept Total Depravity because it is a doctrine of the church, but because it seems to accurately represent the reality of human life and a world where there has never been a day in recorded history without a war going on somewhere.**

    Can't this be reversed, though, and we could say that there has never been a day when someone hasn't been kind to each other? That's how I see humanity -- every act they do isn't tainted by sin, but they do a mixture of good and bad acts.

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  27. Hi Seeker,

    Love you too.

    You obviously speak out of personal feelings on the matter and so you repeat yourself a bit. Your view is quite common nowadays. Indeed the Romanticists of the 19th century really have won the ideological hearts and minds of most of the 1st world. Meanwhile 2/3 of the world continues to live in abject poverty as they have in every era since the invention of agriculture.

    It sounds to me, from your post, that you do not have a clear understanding of the doctrine of Total Depravity. My apologies if I'm wrong, but I'll explain myself briefly here and you can skip it if it's a waste of your time.

    Total Depravity does not say that people are 100% evil. Total Depravity says that there is no aspect of a person (whether it be their heart, their mind, their will, their body, their intellect, their actions, their beliefs or any other part) which is pure and good. We are not born as little angels that occasionally make mistakes. Nor are we demons through and through. We are human beings, created in the image of God, but that image has become distorted. The distortion means that everything we reflect is twisted. It all contains sin within it. There is no pure love. No pure generosity among people that is not at least partially self-serving.

    Notice how different this is from saying people don't love or people don't do nice things. It is to say that EVEN WHEN WE'RE NICE, we're still selfish sinners.

    To me this is a psychological and moral insight of great depth. Have you tried self-improvement of even the simplest kind, like weight-loss, or quitting smoking? It can be damn near impossible and those are examples that are frankly quite straight-forward. Now try extracting yourself from a capitalist system that rapes and pillages the earth and oppresses billions of people? Try not buying anything. Try not paying taxes to a government that wages war. Try going through one day of your life without doing countless little things which harm other people.

    You said that my view of human nature is distorted and lacking common sense, which is inconsiderate and offensive, and I believe groundless. Please consider asking why someone believes what they do before you begin to rant about how their views are "total crap". I'm sure if we were having this discussion in person you would treat me with more respect.

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  28. Can't this be reversed, though, and we could say that there has never been a day when someone hasn't been kind to each other? That's how I see humanity -- every act they do isn't tainted by sin, but they do a mixture of good and bad acts.

    Exactly. I wrote a comment in which I made that same point, but I deleted it because what I said was not phrased very well. Every single day, there are people who commit acts of love, charity, and compassion. That is hardly consistent with the view that people are "totally depraved". People are capable of both good and evil, and the "total depravity" characterization of human nature is one-sided and inaccurate. The problem lies with trying to compare people to an absolutely perfect standard, and if they don't measure up, then they are considered not just imperfect, but "totally depraved". The word "depraved" is itself an incredibly strong statement to make about human nature, but then the "totally" adverb takes it to an extreme degree.

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  29. **Try going through one day of your life without doing countless little things which harm other people.**

    But people also go through one day doing countless little things which help other people, as well. I would disagree that people can't purely love, or be purely generous without selfishness affecting things. Simply because someone is not 100% perfect does not mean that a person can't have moments of perfection.

    The problem undoubtably comes down to the use of the word "depraved," with "total" thrown on top of it. Since depraved means "to make bad" or "corrupt morally" then when using the word "totally," it's essentially saying that everything humans do "totally corrupts morally" or "totally makes bad." The definition provided for how "total depravity" gets used doesn't seem to match up to the words themselves, because the words would indicate that man is incapable of an iota of good, regardless of the purity.

    And humans produce both good and bad fruits. After all, humans are also "fearfully and wonderfully made," as well as a little lower than the angels/god."

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  30. Aric, I deleted my posting because you had set off a hot button and what you wrote offended me, and I decided that the language I used was not appropriate for the discussion. Unfortunately, you read the posting before I deleted it.

    I will say that comments like "There is no pure love. No pure generosity among people that is not at least partially self-serving" is an example of what I am talking about when I say that this is a distorted view of human nature. Maybe you've been reading a little too much Ayn Rand or something--I don't know where this bizarre idea comes from. Sure, people often do generous things for ulterior reasons, but statements like "there is no such thing" as an act that isn't at least partly self-serving is an extreme judgment of human nature, and it is just plain nonsense. Talk to a parent some time about their love for their child and they might give you a different view than what you are propounding.

    Heather has it right. People produce both good and bad fruits. Sometimes they do things for selfish labels, sometimes for purely altruistically ones.

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  31. Seeker and Heather,

    I am a parent. I have spoken with many many parents. Parents want to strangle their children as often as they feel benevolent towards them. Actually the selfishness of children is the perfect illustration of Total Depravity. From birth we are self-centered.

    No fruit that humans produce is purely good or purely bad. Total Depravity does not mean that everything we do is totally corrupt, but that nothing we do escapes corruption. The person who believes they have just done an altruistic act has failed to examine their motives thoroughly. Even more, if they are thinking of their own actions as pure then they have immediately and already proven the opposite, by a failure of humility. You seem to react against the words, but don't produce anything to actually counter the substance. Forget what the doctrine is called. Name one instance ever in the history of mankind (excepting Jesus) where there was an action that was totally pure and good with no negative repercussions.

    Furthermore, and this is the crux for me. You mention all the little things that people do to help etc... but it doesn't balance. 2/3 of the world lives in poverty. If people were about equally good and bad or could choose either option equally than this would not be the case. The Holocaust. The atom bomb. Genocide. You cannot explain these things away as - oh, well we sometimes make mistakes. Or even balance them out by saying we also built the Louvre. Show me anything which is good enough to make a holocaust victim feel like they're suffering was justified?

    It is extremely easy for people of privilege to say that the world is on balance a good place.

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  32. Aric,

    **if they are thinking of their own actions as pure then they have immediately and already proven the opposite, by a failure of humility.**
    Actually, no. One can think that they have done good or something pure, while remaining humble. It's a matter of not taking pride in it, or being proud of one's self. And lacking arrogance. Humility doesn't mean that one doesn't acknowledge one's gifts or strengths -- it means that you don't take pride in them.

    **where there was an action that was totally pure and good with no negative repercussions.**

    Can you name one action where you can trace every single repercussion? Or where things occur in a vacuum? We could reverse this, and say name one action that was totally evil without any "positive" repercussions. I realize I haven't directly answered your question, but that's because I would have to know how everything is interconnected, before I could. And I don't have that knowledge.

    **Forget what the doctrine is called.**

    The problem is, I'm reacting against what the doctrine is called is because for me, the doctrine does not match what the words "Total Depravity" mean. If depraved means "to corrupt morally," as soon as the word "total" gets attached, it is essentially saying that there's no goodness attached. The doctrine itself is almost trying to redefine the two words.

    **It is extremely easy for people of privilege to say that the world is on balance a good place. **

    I'm not saying that the world is in balance. What I am saying is that humans can do something that is purely good or purely evil, or a mixture of the two. I'm not explaining any of the evil away. I don't think any holocaust victim should ever feel that his/her suffering was justified, because that can lead to a belief that suffering is good, and thus the holocaust was acceptable.

    What I am saying is that not every action that occurs holds a taint of sin. I've seen acts where people get absolutely nothing out of it, and yet did the acts anyway.

    I react to this because I think the doctrine sets humanity up for defeat. If you told your three year old child that s/he was incapable of ever doing something purely good, or not tainted by sin, why would the child even bother trying if told s/he would fail? It doesn't seem to promote any promise of humanity, or the potential that humanity could have good, if that were boosted more. After all, we do as a whole see what we expect to see. Am I saying that every evil in the world occured because we "made" it happen? Of course not. But on a smaller scale, if you enter high school and are absolutely certain you'll never find any friends, chances are you won't, because you've already determined the outcome.

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  33. Heather, Mystical and Aric

    First, to put my cards on the table, I agree with Aric.

    Having said that I wonder if part of the problem is one of definition. Aric refers to a particular doctrine with a particular meaning. Heather, you can't define the doctrine by defining the words. The words have to be heard in historical/theological context.

    As Aric said, total depravity does not mean that humans always do bad all the time. It means that there is no part of any human being that is not tinged by sin. While God created humans in the image of God humans h
    have terribly distorted that image through sin.

    Thus when we think we are doing good we may be doing good and bad.

    Do humans do a lot of good? Sure they do. But it is difficult to look at humans as naturally good when one looks at the history of attempted genocides just in the last century.

    The Reformed belief in total depravity is not intended just as condemnation. It is the introduction to the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ, that God can free us from the mess we are in.

    And yes John, that requires special revelation. In fact, if the doctrine of total depravity is an accurate description of the human predicament then general revelation will never bring about change. Only special revelation, the person and work of Christ and the Bible that points to him, and the power of the Holy Spirit can free us from slavery to sin.

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  34. I think the problem here is that we are getting slippery with our definitions. I take issue specifically with Aric's claim that there is no such thing as a purely altruistic act. That is completely different from claiming that people do bad things. We all are in agreement that people do bad things, so giving examples of evil in the world proves nothing.

    As for the fact that parents sometimes want to strangle their children, that also proves nothing. Again, no one disputes that people sometimes succumb to doing, or wanting to do, bad things. I am not a parent. But my parents, if they were alive, would also tell you that they also sometimes did things for their children simply out of love, for no ulterior motives, for no benefit to themselves. Now maybe you, Aric, aren't that kind of parent--but the world is full of parents who are like that.

    And statements like "It is extremely easy for people of privilege to say that the world is on balance a good place" seem appropos of nothing. Maybe someone said that the world "on balance" is a good place, but I wouldn't necessarily be one of them. I think there are a lot of bad things in the world. Again, no one here is disputing the existence of evil int he world. What is being disputed is the claim that people are incapable of purely loving or altruistic or otherwise pure motives.

    I brought up Ayn Rand, by the way, because I remember when I was in college hearing fans of Ayn Rand making that same claim, that every act is basically selfish, that there is no such thing as altruism. Now these were naive college students who hadn't been out in the world much, but this frankly has nothing to do with real life.

    This doctrine of total depravity may be particularly strong in the Reformed tradition, but it also permeates fundamentalist thinking. It is, in view, particularly insidious, which is why I react so strongly to it. Its extremely negative attitude towards humanity is unhealthy, unrealistic, and frankly, not very loving towards the human race. Without ignoring the evil that exists, I also think it is better to look for the good in others. Again, it gets back to this comparison of human beings against an absolute standard. As far as I am concerned, nothing good can come from this kind of theology or this kind of sociology.

    Bringing up social evils is also, in my view, an example of a category mistake. Poverty, hunger, exploitation are social evils, and some social systems are better than others. Comparing individual human failings with the flawed ways that humans organize themselves into larger social organisms is to compare apples to oranges.

    And the comment that nature is also depraved seems completely out of line with the rest of the discussion. Nature has no consciousness or moral character. Nature cannot sin. It just is. Hurricanes exist because of the laws of physics that God brought into being with the Big Bang and which have been in process for billions of years. At least when you claim that humans are depraved, it is consistent with our understanding of humans as free moral agents. God may have created us, but we have free will. By contrast, if hurricanes which lack free will are depraved, what does that say about God?

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  35. Bob,

    But it is difficult to look at humans as naturally good when one looks at the history of attempted genocides just in the last century.

    I would not say that people are "naturally good". I think we are all in agreement that people do bad things. The point I have made is simply that there is a different between saying "people are not naturally good" and "people are totally depraved". Not the same thing. People are capable of good things and they are capable of bad things. Let's not ignore the bad that people do, but let's also not ignore the good. To take a singularly negative view of human nature is just plain one-sided.

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  36. Pastor Bob writes:

    “The Reformed belief in total depravity is not intended just as condemnation. It is the introduction to the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ that God can free us from the mess we are in.”

    My question would be. how did we get into this mess? This leads into the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Why did God get us into this mess which would now require Jesus to get us out of it? Doctrines, while masquerading as logic, end up as dead ends. Total depravity had all the logic of the immaculate conception.

    I have enjoyed the conversation.

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  37. Mystical

    Actually many if not most fundamentalists do not believe in the doctrine of total depravity. They do believe humans are sinful and they do believe that humans can only be forgiven through Jesus Christ. Total depravity leads to the doctrine of election, that humans are unable to choose to follow Christ without the help of the Holy Spirit. As you see in many fundamentalist circles there is a great emphasis on choice and when a person chose to become a Christian. If one believes in total depravity even the will is tinged by sin so the individual is unable to choose to follow Christ without God choosing first.

    However true Reformed types believe the doctrine of election is not a matter of pride because God doesn't choose someone because of their special qualities. In fact if you read the Bible God has this habit of choosing the most unlikely people. Consider Jacob.

    And no, I am unwilling to say who God has chosen. That's God's business, not mine. My job is preaching, teaching, and comforting the people of God. For that matter it's my job to bring God's comfort to anyone who needs it.

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  38. Wow! Great conversation! Thank you all for doing it with style!

    It is interesting in conversations like this that we spiral around and around and still come to some fundamental questions of existence.

    Albert Einstein once said that the fundamental question is existence is this: Is the universe friendly?

    I often wrestle with that. Is life good or is it a veil of tears?

    Are human beings good or evil?

    In the end, and perhaps this is faith more than anything else, I say yes to the friendliness of the universe and the goodness of homo sapiens as well as the rest of Earth's species. For me life is better than no life.

    I do want to talk to Aric more about total depravity and to Bob about why the particular special revelation of the Christian religion is better than others, and I want to thank John M., Bobby, Snad, Heather, Mystical, Viola and Chris for your insights.

    I am not closing this thread, but keeping it open.

    I still affirm my thesis:

    Special revelation is ultimately harmful for human progress. I would say the big reasons are that it attempts to silence creative thinking and learning and leads to violence in regards to defending it.

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  40. You know John in a strange kind of way, you are right. Don't faint! Special revelation does lead to violence. For instance, recently because three Christian men in Turkey believed in the special revelation that Jesus Christ is the unique Savior they were tortured to death by some extreme Moslem young men they were teaching the Bible. And as you know, several South Koreans Christians are still waiting release from their kidnappers after two of their members were killed; I believe that had something to do with their belief in special revelation. It seems they were in the wrong place at the wrong time because they felt called by God—something about doing good works and going into all the world and making disciples.

    And yes I know—some extreme groups, who call themselves Christians have committed violence in the name of their false beliefs—but you are right in the last century more Christians have died than at any other time because of their belief in special revelation, that is, that Jesus Christ came, lived, died and was resurrected and gives them new life, eternal life, life with Christ forever. So yes, special revelation does cause violence.

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  41. Lest you all think we Reformed types are all irredeemably pessimistic and dull I offer you this chuckle.

    Heather, Seeker and Bob,

    I think we are experiencing a few missteps here. As already pointed out there is the matter of definitions. Call the Doctrine of Total Depravity whatever you want (indeed it is often called the Doctrine or Radical Depravity) the words meanings are variable. At the time of its articulation and naming the words did not carry the same sense of aversion you get from people nowadays. In any case it will get us nowhere just to go around in circles about these words. Either deal with the substance of the doctrine or we are at an impasse.

    The other definitional problem is with Sin. Sin in the Reformed tradition is not primarily a type of action it is a state of being. We are "in" Sin. Born of "Sin". Sin as a state of being is what the Total Depravity is concerned with. The doctrine is not saying that we never do anything good or have good intentions. It is only saying that regardless of what we do or intend our actions are still affected by our Sinful nature. Nothing about us escapes this because Sin isn't just an action it is part of who we are. It is like saying everything I do and think is conditioned by my childhood. I can't escape my childhood. I might be determined by it slightly less or slightly more, but I will never completely transcend the influence of my childhood.

    The fact that Heather admits she can't trace the repercussions of an action is further proof of this. We do the evil we do not desire and we don't do the good we do desire. This is a function of being enmeshed in a fallen world.

    And Seeker - the falleness of nature is completely germane. Once again you want Sin to have primarily a moral character. Sin has moral implications yes, but fundamentally it is about broken relationships. All of creation suffers from a broken relationship with God. Thus animals and weather and everything else may be considered part of Sin.

    Finally, and perhaps this is the most important point - as Bob alluded to, Reformed theology is always systematic. Total Depravity doesn't stand by itself. Nor is it the only thing theology has to say about anthropology. Depravity follows after the doctrine of the Imago Dei which says that we are created in the image of God - good. The twisting of that image is what Depravity is. Election follows on its heels and from election to soteriology and soteriology demands a look at eschatology and so on. Ultimately, the greatest weakness I see in the romantic view of anthropology you present is that it leads to a radically diminished eschatology. The hope we are given to look for is a completely restored cosmos - a world in which there are no natural disasters, no death, no sorrow, no tears, no suffering at all. When set against that standard you can't help but see the present world (and the people in it) as fallen. To regard people now as something other than sinners is to give up hope in something truly good.

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  42. Aric,

    **The fact that Heather admits she can't trace the repercussions of an action is further proof of this. **

    I can't trace the repercussions because I'm not all-knowing, and nothing occurs in a vacuum. I don't have those type of abilities. It has nothing to do with providing proof. It's like that saying that if a butterfly flaps its wings in one area, a hurrican starts in another. If I'm in the area of the hurricane, how am I supposed to recognize the butterfly?

    But I do disagree with this: **We do the evil we do not desire and we don't do the good we do desire. This is a function of being enmeshed in a fallen world.**

    I disagree with it based on certain biblical statements, such as what I provided earlier. I disagree with it because of what the meaning of the word "sin" pulls from, in "missing the mark." It was modified from a hunting term, and to me, in order to miss the mark of good, one has to be aiming at that mark of good at one point.

    That, and when Paul was making that argument, he seems to be saying that as soon as the evil act is done, "you" have no longer done that act, but the sin inside.

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  43. This is a function of being enmeshed in a fallen world.

    I think I see what you are saying here; an interesting argument and I think I agree with you up to a point. We are all enmeshed in a global corporate structure that clearly isn't good for everyone and is good for others; it's really hard to elect to not be a part of the world and so in that sense we may be committing evil acts on levels we just aren't aware of.

    I'm almost pessimistic enough in nature to go all the way with this notion of total depravity but for two things; first, I believe there are purely altruistic acts in the world and that the world can become a better place, I've been working on taking these things on faith and not succumbing to outright pessimism regarding the future. This seems to me an important point; if we lose our faith that the world can get better, we lose the will to try and do anything about it.

    Second, I admit I don't follow the notion of salvation through Jesus with regard to things like ecocide and the fate of the world. That always strikes me as sort of selfish in nature, the world can go down the tubes but I saved myself...it makes more sense to me to affirm the values of Jesus and find commonalities of faith and purpose with others all over the world. Surely the answer isn't to convert the world to Christianity, and surely non-Christians throughout the world have just as much chance of some kind of salvation as us.

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  44. John

    I've been thinking about your list. Your last three "What if we admitted" were:

    that none of us likely knows what "God wants," and that your guess is as good as mine...
    that we need to figure this all out for ourselves...
    that it cannot be a good idea to commit ecocide in the name of God?

    If none of us knows what God wants how can we be sure that it is not a good idea to commit ecocide in the name of God?

    I'm suggesting you have a logical inconsistency here.

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  46. All of creation suffers from a broken relationship with God. Thus animals and weather and everything else may be considered part of Sin.

    I'm having a hard time making sense of that statement, and it doesn't really address my point about physical laws. How did the law of physics that emerged after the origin of the universe billions of years ago produce a "broken relationship with God"? The world as we know it is the result of billions of years of evolutionary processes that produced stars, planets, animals, people, and hurricanes. How would the laws of physics operate differently in a world that is not in a "broken relationship with God"? Hurricanes exist because of those very laws of physics that God brought into being during the Big Bang. If those physical laws produce a broken relationship, and if it is God who produced those physical laws, then what does that say about God?

    The idea that nature exists in a broken relationship with God sounds like fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo to me, built out of some sort of literal interpretation of the myth of the Garden of Eden. But for the rest of us, it is hard for me to see how it makes even remote sense.

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  47. mystical please stop tossing the word fundamentalist around. If there is anything aric is not it is a fundamentalist. He is Reformed and what he says is part of the Reformed tradition. And there are Biblical referents for what he says too. You don't have to agree with him but believe me aric isn't a fundamentalist. I've met quite a few in my time and he isn't

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  48. Ultimately, the greatest weakness I see in the romantic view of anthropology you present is that it leads to a radically diminished eschatology. The hope we are given to look for is a completely restored cosmos - a world in which there are no natural disasters, no death, no sorrow, no tears, no suffering at all. When set against that standard you can't help but see the present world (and the people in it) as fallen.

    I wish I could believe in fairy tales, but I don't. The world is what it is. The worst kind of eschatology, as far as I am concerned, is one that wants magical solutions that will just wish away our problems. But God isn't a magic genie. And this is dangerous magical thinking because it takes any responsibility for trying to solve the world's problems out of our hands. If it is all in vain, what's the point? Might as well wait for Armageddon and get it over with.

    Of course, some problems can't really be solved by human effort--natural disasters exist because that is how the world is, that is the physical laws that have been in place for billions of years. To want a magical God who will put an end to this, somehow, makes no sense given what we know about the cosmology of the universe. We are just one planet among billions, our sun is one star among billions, and everything in the universe shares the same physical laws. So we are to believe that God is suddenly going to undo what took 14 billions years, that produced a universe billions of light years in size, just so that our house won't fall on us in an earthquake? Have you forgotten that "nature" encompasses not just our little neighborhood in the universe?

    It seems to me that this kind of nature is a leftover product of a primitive cosmology, the sort of cosmology that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures had, and a product of the Adam and Eve myths. It makes no sense whatsoever given what we know of the universe today. As an educated, intelligent person, you should know better. Adam and Eve were not real people, and there was no literal Garden of Eden, no "fall" from grace because of a talking serpent with legs. It's time to get over that kind of mentality.

    Given that we know that the universe was created a certain way, that it has certain physical laws, and that we are process of billions of years of evolution, the question arises as to why God would produce such a world, in which humans suffer. Any attempt at explaining human suffering has to account for the reality of the universe and its long evolution, not some fairy tale story about Adam and Eve. I think John Cobb is on the right track when he argues that God reasoned that it was worth the cost to bring into being consciousness over eons of evolution--that there is overall greater value in producing consciousness despite the costs in increased suffering. As Cobb puts it, In general terms, God is calling creatures to realize what value is possible in whatever situation they find themselves. This calling over billions of years transformed the surface of the earth from barren rock to a rich biosphere productive of innumerable forms of life. This, of course, did not reduce suffering. On the contrary, there was no suffering before the advent of life, but with every advance in sensitivity, suffering increased. The evidence before us is that God aims at the increase of value even when that involves also the increase of suffering. It is a tradeoff. We suffer, but we also have increased value by our conscious existence.

    This makes much more sense to me than a magical kind of eschatology that imagines a physical world that somehow undoes what took 14 billion years to produce.

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  49. Bob, I am not saying that Aric is a fundamentalist. I am saying that to assert that nature exists in a broken relationship with God sounds very much like something a fundamentalist would say.

    And while I am sure that there are subtleties of difference between the negative characterizations of humanity that exist in fundamentalism versus reformed theology, from my perspective the negativity is the same.

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  50. Pastor Bob

    You wrote: "If none of us knows what God wants how can we be sure that it is not a good idea to commit ecocide in the name of God?
    I'm suggesting you have a logical inconsistency here. "

    I'm suggesting that you are trying to treat John's questions as a syllogism, when they are not and should not be taken so.

    He suggested that perhaps we need to figure things out for ourselves, and then goes on to say that it doesn't seem like a great idea to commit ecocide in God's name. That's it. No if-then statements, blah, blah, blah.

    Actually, he said that "it cannot be a good idea". Actually, it can be a good idea if the goal is to ruin our chances for survival on this planet, which is God's creation. If that is the goal, it is a bad one. So then, committing ecocide in God's name to ruin God's Creation still doesn't seem like a good idea.

    I know I'm blathering, but I am quite angry that you would suggest there is even the remotest possibility of ecocide being a good idea, even if you did so to prove what you thought was a valid point.

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  51. Viola, I would just point out quickly that the idea that John Shuck can lead anyone to damnation is not a very Presbyterian one. The major distinctive of our brand of Christianity is that an all-powerful God chooses to save humanity. Even if one believes that John is preaching heresy, one could take comfort in the fact that God has the power to save the flock.

    I think the example you brought up of the Malatya murders is an instructive one. The three men who were killed were running a small publishing company that printed Bibles exclusively. The BBC does not report that they were tortured, but their murders were brutal none the less. At least one of the men was a foreigner (German), and this is a town notorious for its radical nationalism. If the murderers were Muslim, this was not in the initial reporting; however, to John's point, if this was a religiously motivated crime, then it was perpetrated by people who believe that the Quran is the final special revelation of God. Muslims believe that the Tanakh and the New Testament are also divine revelation, but they are secondary to the final revelation to Mohammad. Religious violence, be it from Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or whomever else, usually comes from a place of rigid belief in perfect divine revelations.

    On total depravity, I tend to agree with Bob (and Jack Rogers and my own pastor) in that it is not a fundamentalist doctrine even if it may seem that way. For one thing, fundies would baptize their infants if they thought they were all hell-bound from birth. The fundies (mostly Baptists and Pentecostals here) I talk to balk at the idea of total depravity because, as Bob said, it leads to predestination, and they CERTAINLY don't like that idea. The Baptist/Pentecostal theology hinges on personal decisions, from the freely chosen sin to the freely chosen salvation.

    I made the point commenting on another post that one of the remarkable points that Calvin made in Institutes is the elevation of human good. It's not just pleasing to God, it is in fact a divine gift of God that we have the capacity to do good. I think it makes the idea of doing good a form of worship as well as keeping us from getting boastful about how good we are.

    On a mere psychological level, we do know that almost all humans are born with the capacity for doing much evil. Almost all (with the exception of a few with a serious mental illness) also have the capacity to do incredible good. Calvin just says that the latter is something extra special.

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  52. flycandler

    Been meaning to ask you this:

    Is your pastor Joanna Adams?

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  53. The fundies (mostly Baptists and Pentecostals here) I talk to balk at the idea of total depravity because, as Bob said, it leads to predestination, and they CERTAINLY don't like that idea. The Baptist/Pentecostal theology hinges on personal decisions, from the freely chosen sin to the freely chosen salvation.

    I'm sure that the fundies differ from reformed theology in ways that matter to people who believe in reformed theology. To an outsider like myself, the subtleties are just lost on me. But I'll take yours and Bob's word for it. I do think, though, that most fundies are pretty heavily focused on the quote from Paul that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" as the starting point of their theology. Their negativity about the human condition may be attributed to free will or the stain of Adam's sin or or something else, rather than some finely elaborated theory of total depravity, but either way it is the negativity that I find problematic.

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  54. Religious violence, be it from Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or whomever else, usually comes from a place of rigid belief in perfect divine revelations.

    Christians for the past 2000 years have certainly not been exempt from this kind of violence, no matter how much one might be denial about it. I have pointed out before, and I'll point out again, that the great Reformed hero Calvin participated in the persecution and execution of Michael Servetus, who committed the crime of not conforming to orthodoxy Christian beliefs. Many of the defenders of the orthodoxy point to their own martyrs as almost a kind of proof of the greatness of one's own faith, while ignoring the martyrs that the orthodoxy has made of so-called heretics.

    Not everyone who believes in special revelation engages in this kind of violence, of course. But the intolerance that is built into that kind of theology can easily lead to persecution of those who think differently.

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  55. Flycandler,

    I think you may have missed my point. I was saying that sometimes, for Christians, often holding on to special revelation creates violence against them.

    I don't think you can just lump everything together and say all people who hold to special revelation do violence against others, which I think is what John and others, including you, are implying.

    Yes, the young men, who did torture, were extreme Muslims. But the wife of one of the men forgave them and asked all Christians to pray for them that through this they might come to know Jesus Christ. And, yes, she believes in special revelation.

    I am unaware that Islam holds the New Testament to be divinely inspired? I know that moderate Muslims do respect those who hold to a sacred book. But that is different than believing their books are inspired.

    After all Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross and they do not believe in the virgin birth.

    Presbyterian belief does not exclude others from being the ones who lead others astray. And yes, God does have the power to save the flock. But even Paul was concerned for the sheep.

    "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert ... (Acts 20:28-31)."

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  56. Heather,

    Are you aware that there are a number of other words translated "sin" in the Bible that don't have to do with falling short (or some other privation)? For instance, a common word group for sin means transgression

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  57. Pastor Bob,

    **If none of us knows what God wants how can we be sure that it is not a good idea to commit ecocide in the name of God?**

    I didn't read this as God doesn't want us to commit ecocide, but rather since no one is 100% sure what God wants, it's a bad idea to do things in the name of God, especially harmful things.

    Chris,

    **Are you aware that there are a number of other words translated "sin" in the Bible that don't have to do with falling short (or some other privation)? **

    But in thinking of a transgression, isn't that also falling short? Or evil? Anything that goes against the standard of good is essentially "falling short" of that standard.

    I was just going with what the word "chatah" originally meant, and what it was metaphorically based on.

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  58. Wow, this is the 58th comment! John, have you noticed that people would much rather argue theology than talk about our faith journeys?

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  60. "John, have you noticed that people would much rather argue theology than talk about our faith journeys?"

    Bob - Just because we don't talk about your blogs about your faith journeys doesn't mean we aren't enjoying them and learning from them - but what would you have us comment on? After all, there is no better authority on your life than you, although I dare say you - Pastor Bob, especially - might suggest that God is. However, since God has not deigned to Comment thus far, you are each of you yet delegated as the prime authority on your lives! And I pray you continue, for it does help us - who are in or around your respective congregations - understand you and the world you inhabit

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  61. Seeker,

    Appeals for respect are apparently lost on you so I will not repeat my request that you be more considerate in your remarks.

    You said:
    "I wish I could believe in fairy tales, but I don't. The world is what it is. The worst kind of eschatology, as far as I am concerned, is one that wants magical solutions that will just wish away our problems."
    The Gospel is a fairytale my friend. The promises it makes are too good to be true. Faith and hope are Christian virtues however much you consider them worth mocking.

    "But God isn't a magic genie. And this is dangerous magical thinking because it takes any responsibility for trying to solve the world's problems out of our hands. If it is all in vain, what's the point? Might as well wait for Armageddon and get it over with."
    And yet the eschatology I've described in part here, and in more detail here is exactly what was behind the Civil Rights Movement. Far from being a motive for disengagement or sitting around doing nothing, a trust in God's action to bring about the kingdom is the best way of motivating people to work here and now for the betterment of the world. Without trust in God the enormity of the task leads to apathy.

    "We are just one planet among billions, our sun is one star among billions, and everything in the universe shares the same physical laws. So we are to believe that God is suddenly going to undo what took 14 billions years, that produced a universe billions of light years in size, just so that our house won't fall on us in an earthquake? Have you forgotten that "nature" encompasses not just our little neighborhood in the universe?"
    Of course I haven't and to suggest that I have is insulting. God by definition must be beyond the entire created order. To look for empirical explanations of things that are inherently impossible to explain is a fools errand. Describe what was before the Big Bang? Or explain what it means to have every particle of matter contained in a singularity that is infinitely small? Beginnings and endings aren't a subject we can observe and describe. For someone to say that I trust the God revealed to me in Jesus Christ is good, and therefore the universe in its final consummation should reflect that isn't a scientific statement.

    "It seems to me that this kind of nature is a leftover product of a primitive cosmology, the sort of cosmology that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures had, and a product of the Adam and Eve myths. It makes no sense whatsoever given what we know of the universe today. As an educated, intelligent person, you should know better."
    When you read your own words over do they not strike you as unbelievably arrogant and lacking imagination? Do you really believe that anyone who disagrees with you must be a caveman? Where do you get the idea that Total Depravity or a robust Eschatology depends on a naive literalist reading of Genesis 2?

    "The question arises as to why God would produce such a world, in which humans suffer. Any attempt at explaining human suffering has to account for the reality of the universe and its long evolution, not some fairy tale story about Adam and Eve."
    Would you stop trying to turn theology into an empirical science? Of course theology deals with the way we understand the world, but it is not its job to explain natural phenomena. Theology is talking about God and reflects on the world only in relation to that.

    Listen, this is a blog not a Confirmation Class. No one is trying to force you to subscribe to anything. In fact, I'm quite happy to have you disagree with every word I say, but you only aggravate people and do yourself a great disservice by imagining that anyone who thinks differently from you is a moron. You've consistently made broad generalizations and gaffes that reveal that you don't really understand Reformed theology, or why some people find it convincing. Try assuming that the person at the other end of the keyboard is a likeable, intelligent, learned individual with worthwhile convictions and then talk to them as though they were physically present. I have not always succeeded at this, but when I do, it always leads to more meaningful conversations.

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  62. Aric, my use of the term "fairy tale" was probably more provocative than it needed to be, but there you have it. I was talking about this eschatalogical notion of lambs living with lions, or whatever it is you believe will take place in this future when nature will be free of suffering by God undoing 14 billion years of Divine activity in the world with a metaphorical wave of his hand. This kind of eschatalogical imagery makes for great poetry, and I love the imagery myself, but I would argue that it has nothing to do with reality. (The same, I would argue, goes for the belief in the literal resurrection.)

    And for the record, I am not trying to turn theology into an empirical science. However, I am suggesting that theology that ignores the scientific realities of the world is not intellectually tenable. I believe that understanding of God's activity in the world is at least partly dependent on our understanding of how the world operates. The cosmology of the ancients informed what they wrote in the Bible, and the same factors come into play in our modern theologies. Put another way, I believe religion is not, or should not be, about naive acceptance of the absurd.

    I take full responsibility for the fact that this conversation would have taken a different tone had you not seen the comment that I deleted. It is clearly my fault. I also have no doubt that I could have phrased my subsequent comments in a way that would have made for a better dialogue. Because of my religious background, much of which I still carry resentment towards, some of the things you have written have set off certain hot buttons for me. I wish I could more calmly discuss some of these issues, but a lot of the resentment that I feel against certain kinds of religious belief still lives with me. But really, Aric, what difference does it make to you what I think? I am not a Presbyterian, which makes me not a part of your religious community to begin with, and according to your own exclusionary definition of what a Christian is, I am not a Christian either. Perhaps it would be better if we just ignored each other.

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  63. Seeker,

    I certainly hope our conversation doesn't end on that note. I appreciate your willingness to take responsibility. Perhaps having worked through our discomfort we will find future disagreements easier to handle. I definitely don't want to leave it here though.

    You said:
    "But really, Aric, what difference does it make to you what I think? I am not a Presbyterian, which makes me not a part of your religious community to begin with, and according to your own exclusionary definition of what a Christian is, I am not a Christian either. Perhaps it would be better if we just ignored each other."

    What difference does it make to me? Well, you are right that I could ignore you and very little about my life would change, however, it seems to me that that is exactly the problem. From where I sit the gospel demands that I be continually open to others, continually vulnerable, and continually changing. I respect you and your opinions. Whether I've been successful at making you feel that way is another matter. I am often pedantic when I should be patient. The fact that you are not a Presbyterian is irrelevant to me (except as another piece of knowledge about you). I do not define myself as belonging to a Presbyterian tribe, or even a Christian tribe. I'm not sure what definition you're referring to that I have excluded you from being Christian with, but it was not my intent, and I apologize.

    As for lambs living with lions, you're absolutely right - it's poetry. And what poetry does is express the inexpressible truth. I don't claim to know when or how, but it seems to me an inescapable conclusion of a belief in a good god, that the consummation of creation will reflect that purity perfectly. That isn't a scientific claim, it is a hope. It definitely sounds like a fairy tale. Maybe it is. Maybe fairy tales are true.

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  64. I appreciate this recent exchange between Seeker and Aric and pleased that they are continuing to communicate as both are my internet pals.

    Aric concludes his latest:
    "Maybe fairy tales are true."

    This reminded me of a book by Frederick Buechner, "The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale."

    We need the stories and grand stories for hope and life. I think Aric's theology is far more nuanced and poetic than what mostly passes for reformed theology.

    I wonder, and I am just thinking aloud, at what points in our grand theories of life--our theologies--do our fairy tales become real, concrete, incarnate in our lives.

    Thank you all...

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  65. people would much rather argue theology than talk about our faith journeys

    Well, I agree with snad; the quality of a post can't be judged by the number of comments; the faith journeys are good stuff too. Some threads, like this one, are more prone to debate and comments. Still, I'm playing catch up on the conversation threads, so I did just comment on your high school years post, which was very interesting; I tried to write a more high quality comment than the last one I gave John (teasing him about early musical tastes).

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  66. Wow, Viola. We desperately need to educate folks on other religions.

    The Quran specifically mentions that God gave Moses the Book (the Pentateuch or Torah) and sent the prophets to Israel, culminating in Jesus, son of Mary, whom God "strengthened with the Holy Spirit" (2.087). God is credited with the Torah and the Gospel, but the final revelation is that given to Mohammad (3.003). Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus (19.020). Jesus was crucified (4.157) but resurrected (raised up) by God (158), and Jesus will return on the Last Day (Judgement Day) to stand as witness against the wicked (159). He is the Jewish Messiah, but the idea of the trinity is explicitly rejected (171), as is the divinity of either Jesus or Mary. Jesus does proclaim the truth and way to salvation. Someone with these beliefs could conceivably pass most of the Fundamentals tests.

    The problem that I and others are trying to point out is that people who die defending their special revelation from God become martyrs to others. Christians are NOT unique in this. The Islamic world sees, for a pretty stark example, the Crusades as a particularly brutal attack against Islam (and western accounts make the Crusaders look awful--ever hear of "kill them all and let God sort them out"?). To your typical Muslim, those who died at the hands of the Crusaders are thought of as having died for the sake of the final, special revelation of God. I think I can speak for both John and myself when I say that neither of us thinks that ALL people who believe in a special revelation are destined to be killers. However, psychologically, they are more prone to being manipulated into becoming killers.

    Whether the victims in the extreme examples you gave thought they were dying for the faith isn't nearly as relevant as the motivations of the criminals who committed the acts. The Koreans in Afghanistan is a good illustration of this: they weren't kidnapped because they were Christians; they were kidnapped because they were obvious foreigners and therefore valuable as hostages. The Taliban got what it wanted--South Korea is pulling out its troops and non-military personnel. Incidentally, we should all give a prayer of thanks for the eight who were released today and continue to pray for the other 11.

    While the Turkey incident is a little murkier (Christians in the area have been complaining about harassment), the fact that the publishing house was run by a German certainly had to have been a factor in the minds of the xenophobic nationalist thugs who murdered him. Again, the three victims were brutally murdered, but I have not seen any reporting saying that they were tortured.

    We certainly need to be wary of anyone who is absolutely certain that he or she knows the mind of God and any who disagree are wrong and enemies of God. We certainly need to know what people of other faiths consider to be their special revelations so that if nothing else, we know where they're coming from.

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  67. Thanks Fly,

    That is the essence of what I am getting at. Glad you are around to explain my cloudiness!

    "I think I can speak for both John and myself when I say that neither of us thinks that ALL people who believe in a special revelation are destined to be killers. However, psychologically, they are more prone to being manipulated into becoming killers."

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  68. Mystical, you said, "I'm sure that the fundies differ from reformed theology in ways that matter to people who believe in reformed theology. To an outsider like myself, the subtleties are just lost on me", which is a brilliant observation.

    I think most fundies are unaware that their theology is so incredibly different from ours (by which I mean mine and John's and Bob's and Joanna's--the Presbyterian Church (USA)), hence the horror with which they greet an explanation of the doctrine of total depravity and how it is integral to predestination.

    These differences may be subtle, but their impact is immense. It in short means that one either is on a lifelong campaign to personally save souls or welcomes others as part of a universal family of equals.

    To jump on my high horse for a sec, one of the reasons I've always thought that Presbyterianism hasn't spread like wildfire in the US and other parts of the world (with exceptions like Scotland and Korea, which are very much the result of being in the right place at the right time) is that it is not a faith that provides easy answers and simple instructions. One does not say a "sinner's prayer" and make a conscious decision to Accept Christ as Personal Lord and Savior and instantly be granted salvation. In the mainline church in particular, we emphasize the freedom of conscience, which means a lot of thinking about complex issues. Traditional Presbyterian worship services are quiet and reverent, and encourage silent meditation and reflection. In a world increasingly focused on entertainment and instant gratification, this may not be the most attractive product on the market. Big, flashy megachurches that combine Pentecostal fervor with high tech projection systems, stadium seating, snack bar in situ and a take-home message that is direct and simple have a lot of appeal in this society.

    On the other hand, I do think that a sizeable portion of Christians tire of the constant 24/7 barrage of lights and sounds, and a moment to pause and listen for the quiet whisper of God has a lot of appeal. These are the folks who still attend mainline churches across the denominations. There is something to being able to participate in a ritual that links us with millennia of believers.

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  69. Flycandler,
    On the virgin birth of Jesus you are right, I am wrong, I think I was thinking of the deity of Christ.
    However on the crucifixion of Jesus this is what the Qur’an states:
    “And for their saying, ‘verily we have slain the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, an Apostle of God.’ Yet they slew him not and they crucified him not, but they had only his likeness. And they who differed about him were in doubt concerning him: No sure knowledge had they about him, but followed only an opinion, and they did not really slay him, but God took him up to Himself. And God is Mighty, Wise. 4:157-158”

    One Islamic scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, has stated that the non-crucifixion of Jesus is “the one irreducible fact separating Christianity and Islam, a fact which is in reality placed there providentially to prevent a mingling of two religions.”

    I would recommend the book “Is The Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? By Timothy George Founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.

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  70. Viola wrote: I would recommend the book “Is The Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? By Timothy George Founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.

    I recommend y'all quit reading for a while and get outside! I'm heading out to hang laundry in the misty Appalachian breeze and play ball with my dog!"This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad!"

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  71. Great Idea! Except it willbe 102 degrees in Sacramento today!

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  72. Flycandle, I can't comment on why Presbyterianism hasn't caught on more, because I don't know why people ever make the choices they do, or why they are attracted to certain theologies. Given a choice between the fundamentalist concept of sinners going to hell because they didn't get around to accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, or the reform doctrine of predestination--well, I choose neither. I don't believe in hell, and I don't believe that God predestines anyone for anything. I have to admit that I never saw the appeal of predestination as a doctrine. But that's just me. Being surrounded by reform Christians in this blog community, I am obviously in a minority here.k

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  73. Slight orrection to what I just wrote. I don't believe that God predestines anyone to a particular kind of afterlife or that anyone is "elect" in God's eyes. I'm an agnostic on the question of an afterlife, but I believe that if there is one, then I am a universalist. My theology isn't focused on an afterlife at all. So from my perspective, neither reformed views of the afterlife nor fundamentalist ones are particularly appealing.

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  74. Interesting that I've had a similar conversation before. Presbyterians are technically not universalists. IMO, this comes from (and I am dramatically oversimplifying) a human (and possibly even a scriptural) need for what I call "The Hitler Clause". We need the idea that Hitler (or whomever your favorite monster may be) is getting his just desserts in the afterlife (Hell, eternal death, etc.). Therefore, the number of people in what we call Heaven (everlasting life, etc.) has to be finite, even if it is (Everyone who ever existed) minus Hitler. We therefore assume that Jesus did not save Hitler; ergo, Jesus did not save everyone.

    My own particular bit of heresy is that I like to think that Jesus was God's way to redeem humanity--all of humanity. I hate the idea of Hitler being in Heaven, but (and this is the crux of predestination) it's not my decision.

    The practical upshot of the Calvinist brand of Reformed faith (which was after all a reaction to perceived excesses in the Roman Church) is that God through Christ has sorted out the afterlife for us. We need to stop obsessing over trying to save souls ourselves, because God will take care of it. Our assignment, as Jesus himself said, is to love God and neighbor. Calvinism at its core is a message to GET ON WITH IT ALREADY! Predestination is a complicated way to arrive at that conclusion.

    I invite actual MOWS who have attended seminary to tear this apart.

    As a postscript:
    My pastor tells the story of two prominent ministers in Boston in the 19th century, one dyed-in-the-wool Calvin/Knox Presbyterian, the other a dyed-in-the-wool Wesleyan Methodist. The gentlemen would have frequent debates with each other over the merits of Calvinism (predestination) and Arminianism (free choice). One day, they decided that each would preach a single sermon from the other's pulpit. Come Sunday morning, they passed each other riding their horses. The Presby, being in a waggish mood, said "ah, Parson Brown, I see that God has predestined you to preach from my pulpit this fine morning!" The Methodist simply replied, "oh?", turned his horse around and rode home.

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  75. Seeker,

    You ain't no minority. But even so, who cares? I appreciate your insights, as you know, and agree with them. And I am a Presbyterian/Reformed kind of guy, whatever that means.

    Brass tacks, folks.

    No Hell and no Heaven. This is life. It is what it is. How then, do we live? All of the doctrines of predestination, original sin, total depravity, and so forth. What really do they mean?

    I am not bummin' on them, I just want to know. If this beautiful experience we call life is what it is, how do these doctrines help us?

    I say like a broken record, if they help us to live with love, justice, and hope, then by all means believe them. But if they don't (and I have my doubts) then believe in something that will enable you to live with love, justice, and hope.

    I affirm that it is better that the Universe exists, and that I and you exist, then not.

    I think even in the scope of things, if life was reduced to cockroaches, that would be better than no life.

    I begin with what I see in this incredible universe and I say, "Yes!"

    I have a real problem with projecting everything good in humanity or the universe onto "God" and everything bad as "fallen" or "human."

    However, if that is your theology, and it helps you to do good, then go for it. I choose the goodness of life and humanity. "God" or as one person I remember said, "The kingdom of God is within you."

    Blessings,
    john

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  76. I affirm that it is better that the Universe exists, and that I and you exist, then not.

    I think even in the scope of things, if life was reduced to cockroaches, that would be better than no life.

    I begin with what I see in this incredible universe and I say, "Yes!"

    I have a real problem with projecting everything good in humanity or the universe onto "God" and everything bad as "fallen" or "human."


    John, I so agree with you. And it is my guess that God thinks that a universe with conscious, flawed beings who sometimes suffer is better than a universe of cockroaches, which is better than barren universe of lifeless nothing, which is better than no universe at all. Why else would God have brought the universe into being?

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