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January 2012 Posts

Garden of Eden Redux: The Ascent of Man… Not the Fall

In the book of Genesis God is said to have created two trees in the center of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. After Eve ate of the apple as Adam did as well, they were cast from the Garden forever. Two Cherubim were posted as guard around the Tree of Life, preventing humanity from ever tasting of its fruits.

Ancient Near Eastern Scholars Gordon and Rendburg have suggested Good and Evil as a merism. Essentially the translation should read more like this: with knowledge, both good and evil. The tree was a way of knowing all things, as all can be contained between good and evil.

Strange as it is for us, knowledge was more tempting than eternal life. Eve was compelled to sample the forbidden fruit. Compelled towards a knowledge of a great many things.

In Christian Theology the serpent is equated with Satan, thanks to an obscure passage in Revelation that for many connects the two. But by filling in “Satan” here the passage becomes theology rather than meaningful mythology.

Here’s what I mean. The serpent is understood to represent deceit in Abrahamic religions. The serpent almost represents a trickster, the breaks the rules of the Gods archetype  that somehow ends up unintentionally helping humanity. The serpent became the conduit for the destruction of humanity’s innocence but in so allowed the opportunity to be like God and know a great many things, both good and evil. Genesis was written before Judaism had a concept of Satan. For them, all good and bad comes from God, as evidenced by a wealth of passages that say that very thing.

Adam and Eve had their eyes opened.  They saw that they were naked. They felt shame. They became human!

This story, to me, is not the story of the “fall” into sin. This is the story of the human species becoming humanity. This is the story of a species becoming its full potential, warts and all.  The snake, though perhaps out for its own good, allowed humanity to take shape and form, becoming self aware and conscious of itself – very human characteristics.

The story is attributed with “original sin”, a phrase that does not actually exist in the Bible. The phrase itself came about by means of St Augustine. But he didn’t make this up in the first place.

Augustine was nearly a priest in the religion of Mani, the Gnostic sect of Manichaeism, before converting to Christianity. As Mani, before becoming a prophet, led a wild life, much like Augustine, he in his writing and theology began to see humanity as sick and twisted, despicable before the eyes of God. He spoke of “original sin” filling humanity with the sickness and wickedness of evil.

Augustine carried this concept into Christianity, where it was fully accepted by the Church. We, as humanity, were wicked and evil, and became this way, conscious or not, through the act of original sin.

Humanity’s story in Genesis is not one of wickedness and evil. If we really wanted to be literal here, why did God create the world in which humanity would take such a horrible step? Why create the tree or trees?

We could not be fully like God, the story tells. Either we could have eternal life like God or we could have knowledge like God. The story tells that we chose curiosity and knowledge, not knowing what it would bring but willing to take the chance. This is what makes us human, is it not? If our ancestors hadn’t started using tools or building fires, would we be here as we are now? If they hadn’t experimented with what they were told to not touch what would our world look like now?

Either you can have life or you can know a great many things. I feel like I choose this every day. Stay innocent and just live, naive of what is around me, or know a great many things, and in awareness of my fragility and humanity, be cast from the innocence of the simple goodness of life into the heartbreak and the sadness of the real world.

In an evolutionary sense, this story carries true. At a certain point humanity casted off its animalistic side and became aware of its own nakedness. We became self aware. We no longer lived and died meaningless deaths, essentially living forever as a species. We became individuals aware of our nature and physicality. Genesis is the story of the ascent of man, not the fall.

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Forks Over Knives and Vegetarianism

I’m not a vegetarian. I sometimes wish I was and have been moving in this direction, but I love the taste of bacon. How many times have you heard that? I saw the movie Forks Over Knives last night. I highly recommend seeing this movie. I’ve seen most every food related documentary put out over the past few years and read a few books about food politics and health as well. My wife is very interesting in this topic and has read I think almost EVERY book related to it published in the past 4 years on the topic. Regardless, I was more convinced by this movie to be eating the way I wish I would, almost entirely plant based whole foods, than by any other media I have consumed.

My problem with a solely vegetarian diet if not vegan diet has always been anthropological in nature. For the majority of human civilization, humans ate whatever they could find and naturally, almost instinctively developed balanced diets from what they could find and eventually cultivate. This went for the consumption of animals and plants just the same.

If this is the case, why is now suddenly the eating of animals seen as a morally depraved action by some as well as completely unhealthy by others?  Why does humanity change its mind like this and what can we believe considering we grew up with the bulk of public information telling us that meat and dairy were crucial to our survival? Do we really need pounds of high protein foods consumed every week in order to survive?

The answer in the movie is simply no. We don’t. In fact we will live longer and live better without, as evidenced by the very active and athletic 75 and 76 year old doctors the documentary featured. In fact, you would do better to not eat those foods and their sugary, fried friends as they have been proven to lead to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The doc features a few patience who either on a small pharmacy of medications prescribed to contain a condition or literally dying of cancer have sprung back and lived for long healthy lives after switching to a plant based diet.

The bit on breast cancer most resonated with me. The woman featured was in her mid 70’s; what would be my grandmother’s age if she had died of breast cancer after it spread to her other organs and brain after a mastectomy and chemo treatment failed to removed the toxic cells entirely.

I lost a grandfather to lung cancer as well. Though attributed to asbestos and smoking, the threat of cancer is very real and present to me. Its something I consciously and unconsciously fear and am aware of in what I do. What the doctors said in this movie, that their research has shown again and again, is that cancer is avoidable and treatable. Chemo is not the answer.

Somehow our culture has fully adopted the idea of treatment being simply taking a series of pills for whatever ails you. If there is something wrong to a certain part of your body you can take a drug that can fix that issue in that segment of your body. You might then have to take something else to counter a secondary effect of the first drug… and on and on. The body is not seen as an entire unit functioning together, which it is.

Rather than drugs, why not look at what is making us sick in the first place? How lifestyle change is the last option is confounding to me. One of the title doctors in the movie stated to the effect of how strange it was that plant based diets are deemed radical while open heart surgery is not.

Once before I took up a classic whole food, vegan diet for a month. I don’t think I will be that extreme, I do believe that I will continue to alter my diet towards more of this type of eating experience. Not legalistically and to the letter of the law, but progressively healthier simply because it is better for me. I want to know my future grandchildren one day and can’t see myself lying on my death bed thankful I had all those cheeseburgers.

Additional Resources

http://www.thechinastudy.com/
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110511/REVIEWS/110519995

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Christian Approach to Sociology?!?

Ok, I am trying to be really positive on this blog. I’m trying not to take sides and call individuals out. But this is just too much. Justin Taylor blogged earlier about Calvinist theologian Vern Poythress’ new book on sociology book Redeeming Sociology described by Taylor as:

… part of an ambitious project of seeking a rigorously God-centered approach to various disciplines. (He has already done this with hermeneutics, science, and language).

For whatever reason this gets under my skin. Not that this guy isn’t intelligent. He certainly is with  PhDs in both theology and mathematics. But the idea of interpreting the field of sociology from the perspective of trinitarian theology is an astounding and ludicrous jump to make. See the quote below:

Within God, the persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—have rich personal relations with one another. We are made like God, and that is why we can enjoy personal relationships.

I have not read the book, only the excerpt. There is a danger in too much separation between the sacred and profane. Our culture is already too polarized. Having the “secular” version and the “Christian” version is not helpful. You don’t see Christian mathematics. You don’t see Christian pediatricians (I could be wrong). Why Christian sociology, and why is this not the study of social activity and interaction. The author mentioned that one reason for this is that sociology “leaves God out.” I’m not sure what that means and most likely won’t until I’ve read the book. For now I immediately jump to the conclusion that this is yet another attempt to give Christianity what it seems to want and feels it has; a completely different world to live in in which it doesn’t have to even interact with topics that might require them to ask questions that are not religion based.

As a counter point, if you want a Christian take on Sociology, fine. But hire a sociologist. If i were one, I would be as offended as a pastor reading a sociologist’s treatise on the New Testament.

Read more:

http://tgcreviews.com/interviews/an-interview-with-vern-poythress-on-redeeming-sociology/
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/06/01/redeeming-sociology/?comments#comments#comment-86672
http://www.wtsbooks.com/product-exec/product_id/7533/?utm_source=jtaylor&utm_medium=jtaylor

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Why I Do Not Believe in Hell Part 1

 

Imagine a father has five sons. The sons grow up in a modest house and work hard for everything they have. One day when the sons were grown up the father came to two of his sons and told them that he had built lavish mansions for all five of them, outfitted with the most luxurious conditions imaginable. For each son the gift was theirs but with only one small catch – they had to sign a piece of paper stating that they believed the father in what he said. If they signed they got the mansions and the good life for the rest of the their lives. The catch was that if they did not they would then be sold into slavery where they would be tortured until they died. The other part was that the father was tired and didn’t have the strength to tell the other sons and left it to the two to tell the others.

One son immediately signed and left with his bags for the mansion with a huge smile on his face, telling one of his brothers on the way out of town, who signed and promptly followed. The other son told by the father was at first shocked and somewhat sceptical. He took some time before signing but eventually did. He decided he should contact his other brothers, who had moved from their childhood home, before he left for his mansion. He traveled to visit one brother to tell him. This brother was skeptical, as he had lived with his mother most of his life and did not know much about his father. He found it hard to believe that he had only two options and thought that maybe his father was a little off or his brother was leading him on, trying to get his signature for one reason or another. Having no access to his father directly, he declined to sign and decided it must have been a bad joke. After his brother left he was almost immediately whisked up taken into slavery where he proceeded to live out his years plagued by the worst kinds of suffering.

Finally returning from his failed journey, the brother told by his father decided to send word to his final brother, who had left for a far away place at a young age, with the paper to sign by messenger. After several months of not hearing back, he decided to retire to his mansion as well, fearing this brother would also lack belief. Little did he know that his message was thwarted by bandits on the road and never made it the intended recipient. As such, the final brother was also nabbed and sold into slavery, tortured for the rest of his miserable life.

Because the offer was given for reward, could the father be considered loving and kind and just for his gesture, even though the punishment for not believing was so unspeakably horrible? Could we today speak with someone who acted the part of the father in this story and think of him as loving and kind, or would we look at his actions as appalling and of the worst kind of evil? Could you sit quietly by and let a friend of yours do this to his family, content in the knowledge that they had the option and the father in his wisdom had a reason for it?

I hear it proclaimed that God is just for this behavior because He is all knowing and far superior to our own personal morals, that we could not hope to understand morality the way God sees it. But how can this be true? Why is the church not seeking to reconcile the act of a loving God with its theology? Why is the thought about hell not existing such a, offensive idea when eternal punishment for some who could not know be considered just and loving?
Hell is not the act of a loving God. Hell is an invention of man used for the control of the actions, motivations, and behaviors of people who look to the very giver of these measures for examples of righteous living ordained by the creator of the universe who loves them deeply.

Hell is not defined by the Bible. In theology it is said that Jesus spoke more about hell than any other topic. In reality, Jesus spoke of places like the grave and Gehenna and in those terms Jesus is making analogies about Hell; as in Jesus said hell was like… If Jesus spoke so much about what a place was like, then why didn’t he at any point speak the name of the place? Why didn’t he say “will be in danger of the fire of hell, a place like Gehenna”? Instead he said ‘will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna”, a word translated hell. Is it possible that the same terms used with the word “hell” are also the words used to describe them? In essence, are they one in the same and hence either the word is used to describe what it is like and needs an original term or is simply the place translated into hell? It seems as though there is no Greek word used for Hell, only other places mentioned and translated as Hell. For reference, Gehenna was a valley outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned. It was also where social outcasts were sent. Jesus mentioned a very literal place, but it was not the hell of eternal doom.

With the word Hell why isn’t there a first principle argument where Jesus states the item and the definition, then using analogies to describe the place? If I were to mention Nebraska I would not do it by simply making statements about it such as “a place with corn in abundance where the prairie meets the plain” and expect people to know exactly what I am referring to. Of course, from the argument that it was an accepted known concept to Jews at the time, when Jesus traveled to Jerusalem he did not say “I’m off to a place with a wall, where fundamentalists curse new ideas and stone adulterers.” He said Jerusalem!

Jesus was not speaking of eternity in the New Testament, he was speaking of community. His concern was that we would have life to the fullest, not that we wouldn’t suffer for eternity in a place of eternal torment. We create hell, we make hell. But I do not believe we can go to Hell. I certainly don’t believe Jesus did either. History is filled with stories of the life and death of heroes who were killed for an idea that would change the world and the way people lived. Why would this not be the same?

To make matters worse, I don’t believe that most anyone really believes in Hell. For example, lets say you were driving down the street heading to see a movie and happen to drive by a kindergarten school filled with kids but with the doors locked and one side of the building on fire. The windows are open and hundreds of kids are poking their heads out screaming for help and you can see smoke in the background slowly fill the rooms. Would you stop? Would it be possible to NOT stop? Would that image of the kids being burned to death be so imprinted on your conscience that you could not do anything but stop; or would you be compelled to continue on to your movie, pleased as punch with your life as it is and the lovely car you’re driving?

Is not hell and the idea of it like this? If one really believes in hell as a reality for most of the planet, how could one do ANYTHING but something about this? How could you go out to eat, take a vacation, read nice stories to your children, dream of nicer cars, consider new furniture, or even casually watch TV when the world around you will be tormented for all eternity in the worst conditions even imaginable?

Could it be that Christianity does not actually believe in the existence of Hell more than just a cursory concept to be avoided? Or, is it possible that the concept is so egregious that the very concept can not be contained in the mind, thereby leaving the chosen free of the conscious guilt of its existence?

More than not I believe that no one really believes more than in the sense that they are free of having to suffer this punishment. Belief in Hell is no more than a human inspired dichotomy of sacred and profane extremes, resulting in the extravagant paradox of God’s unfailing love and the unrelenting suffering some, but not the chosen, must endure because of something we can not understand or be allowed to understand by God’s design. For when the religious do not understand or there are holes in theology, it is said to be because God did not reveal this to us or we were not meant to know. How is it that the Bible is a road map for our daily lives but something so absolutely crucial is kept from our knowledge? How was this not shouted to us from the heavens? How is it that we can not fully comprehend the idea of something so horrible we are destined for it unless we believe Jesus?

The question that most troubled me as an Evangelical was how the act of creating a system in which most if not all of your creation would suffer for all eternity was the act of a loving God. The reply I most often received, quite literally, was some variation of “just because”, which is not an answer. Quite simply, sending the majority of creation to hell, most of which without the option of knowing other wise, is not the act of a loving or righteous God.

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Fundamental Text Reading Leads to Theological Rigidity

In just over a month two major events have hit the evangelical scene. The first, the firestorm surrounding the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the May 21 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping and his followers. Though very different in theme, both events echo similar themes.

Absolute Certainty

In both cases we see a group standing in opposition to mainstream. The Love Wins controversy places Rob Bell and a slightly (believe me, its not really a huge difference) different reading of the Bible against mainstream Evangelical dogma. Immediately, and even before the book was released, some of Evangelical Christendom’s leading theologians and puppets rebuked Bell and his work. The word heretic was thrown out more than a little, as where chants of Bell being against God and completely wrong on the Bible.

One of my favorite ironies in this situation is the total and complete lack of humility in the opposition. Before even reading the actual book, based entirely on a video released by Bell about the book,  blogger Justin Taylor wrote in a blog also distributed by John Piper “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.” What he does not see in his very words is that in his simple dismissal of Bell’s book he is proclaiming his absolute authority to know, or have learned from God, the absolute truth. He knew Bell did not know because he does. Period.

He was not alone. Not in the least bit so. I have now read dozens of articles, watched countless videos, and read the comment arguments under each entry that poses what some assume to be an accepted orthodoxy that believes what they believe to be absolutely correct and from God. There is no true humility in this, only false displays seem to scatter the carefully crafted missiles of orthodoxy. I will write more about this on another day.

This position of absolute certainty is an extremely dangerous conclusion to make about one’s one beliefs. You have to conclude that you can not be wrong because your reading of a sacred text, despite that fact that there are thousands and thousands of interpretations available, must be 100% accurate. The idea that the very ideas and systems of God can be narrowed into a narrow and closed belief system should be astounding and offensive. There is no room to breathe. Only to elucidate and extend the conversation within boundaries.

For 1700 years Christianity has gone through periods of small to immense change. New developments become orthodoxy, then when faced with even newer ideas become violent or critical of these seemingly heretical concepts. Galileo was harshly critiqued by the church for suggesting the earth was not flat and not in the center of the universe. The very core of post-reformation theology is a major step from what was orthodoxy previous to it. There has been no shortage of changes to doctrine, theology, and Biblical interpretation over the years, but still we see the Church unable to grasp at new ideas and instead label, diminish, and dismiss new ideas and the leaders who bring them.

If Jesus had intended for theology and doctrine to be the central focus of the Christian faith, I imagine he would have focused on doctrine and systematic theology instead of loving people and teaching us how to live. The Bible is NOT a document of theology. That came much, much later and has changed continually ever since.

Moderation is a Dirty Word

The Bible, as with other major religious texts, is a living, breathing document that must be considered and critiqued as often as it is listened to. Because we are living over 1700 years from its writing, we must take the words delicately, humbly considering that because we think it so does not mean it is that. We should be astounded at people who think they know with total accuracy what God meant. Our first line of reasoning should be to consider if what the Bible says is what it actually means. Combining scattered verses and disconnected phrases, combining into a complex doctrines and saying that this is what God means is a tremendous act of human invention and creativity. You can not assume it is from God.

Too many times I’ve read or watched someone reply to the opposition with “well, that’s what the Bible (or Word) says. I’m just sharing.” We have incredibly complex brains that process more than 100 trillion calculations per second. Within every idea we consider consciously, our brain is tying together a lifetime of ideas, beliefs, considerations, histories, and needs. When you read the Bible, you aren’t just reading words. You are reading your own life as a lens.

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