Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Civic Duty’

1 Thessalonians 5

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 29, 2012 at 12:30 am
Thessaloniki Film Festival

Thessaloniki (Photo credit: Recovering Vagabond)

Read 1 Thessalonians 5 here.

In my previous post, I maintained that Paul’s views on the Kingdom of God may have evolved over time – originally, Christ’s followers appeared to have believed that his return was imminent – meaning measured in months, not years. There wasn’t much need to develop an opinion on what might become of someone who converted to Christianity and then died of old age before Jesus’ return. As the years rolled by and people began to die off, the need arose. I suspect that Paul meditated / prayed /thought it over, and decided that Jesus’ resurrection was a precursor to that of believers – the ‘first fruits’ doctrine that he develops later in his letter to the Corinthians.

Conservative Bible commentaries seem to abhor the idea that Paul may have developed this doctrine later, as the situation arose. Most seem to explain 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 by saying that Paul was simply telling the Thessalonians something he had neglected to mention to them before. I find this implausible. To teach a resurrected Christ without mentioning the promise of resurrection to deceased believers just doesn’t seem likely.

It seems much more likely to me that his central message for two decades had been Christ’s immediate return to set up a kingdom. I think the part about the dead in Christ rising first was something he came up with as the situation changed. This is not to say he made it up necessarily; if you’re a believer, you might think that he simply received further enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure why many commentary writers feel the need to insist that he had simply neglected to inform his flock of so critical a piece of information.

In chapter 5, Paul again returns to the topic of the return of Christ, and the sparing of believers from the coming wrath. It seems to me that it is a topic never far from his mind as the wrote this letter. He tells them to forget about trying to predict the exact time or day when Jesus would be coming back; it wasn’t something that was possible to do. This hasn’t deterred many of his followers from trying to do so over the centuries. Seems the last guy to do so was sometime within the last year or so.

Basically, Jesus is going to sneak up on everyone – just when they think things are going pretty well, he’ll return. However, Christians are not to be caught unaware, for they are to live their lives in a constant state of preparedness for his return. He may not come back tomorrow, but believers should live as if he will.

Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything. I believe the problems that we face as Americans are quite fixable, so long as everyone is truly interested in fixing them. If a large proportion of the population feel that the purpose of government is to prepare for Jesus’ return – not to try and create a better society – then America suffers due to their belief. Even if you think Jesus is coming back, you shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. What if he waits another 2000 years?

I’ve found several things in this letter that I think do potential harm to American democracy, but finally, here at the end, is some advice that, if taken, would actually improve it.

Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Imagine if we always strove to do what is good for each other and everyone else – what a brilliant democracy we would have. Why is it that we seem to be only looking at what’s best for us personally, or what fits into our particular worldview, instead of what would be good for America? Paul’s admonition to be positive is also not bad advice, as long as we don’t insist that problems don’t exist.

He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

I actually had one believer tell me, just today, that when she was unsure whether the ‘voice’ she heard in her mind was God or just her own, she might ask God to give her a sign – through her dog, if I understood her correctly. Pardon me if I sound dismissive, but in a democracy, I’d rather folks use the mind God gave them to make important decisions, and not seek out canine oracles. But I guess if  in the Old Testament, God spoke to Balaam through an ass, he must speak through dumb-asses today.

And finally, I don’t know what a holy kiss is – but I’m glad that’s one custom of the early church that didn’t make it to the 21st century.

Good Reasons for “Believing” in God

In New Atheism on May 22, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

I’ve always imagined that this would be the kind of essay question you’d receive from St. Peter when you arrived at the pearly gates. He’d give you one of those little blue essay booklets from your college days, a couple of No. 2 pencils, give you about an hour to write a thousand words – and all of eternity would depend upon your answer.

Like most people, you may think there are really only two ways to answer this question; either ‘yes’ and support your beliefs with information from the Bible, church history, and the like (much easier to do if you were actually sitting at those gates), or ‘no’ and appeal to science, philosophy, empirical evidence, etc.

Dan Dennett has discovered yet a third way to answer – belief in belief. In a lecture given at an Atheist Alliance International conference, Dennett discusses some of the reasons why some may continue to attend church and worship God, even though they may not believe that God exists, or disagree that he exists in such a way as the church believes and teaches.

He begins by saying that there are, of course, many good people in the US and around the world today who believe what the priests and preachers tell them. Their religion and worldview fit together rather nicely, their world seems to be working out fine just the way it is, and there’s little reason to go upsetting apple carts. These are the people who have bumper stickers on their car that proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They are too busy with the everyday affairs of their lives to question the system of beliefs that has held sway in the West for the last couple of centuries.

However, he thinks that there are many people sitting in the pews on Sunday who can’t really be described this way. They are what he calls ‘reflective’ Christians, meaning that they do take the time to think about the claims that the priests and preachers make. These folks often find that they have a problem – but they probably don’t confess as much to their religious brethren.  Reflective Christians realize that the Bible seems to have some errors and inconsistencies.  They may doubt that the words attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. They may have problems believing that miracles every occurred. Some may have decided that the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other events critical to Christian dogma simply never happened.

Yet these Christians still go to church every Sunday, still actively participate in church, still ‘believe’.  Why? Dennett examines several possible reasons – reasons to believe in God, even if you’re not 100 percent sure.

First of all, of course, is fear. Most Christians can tell you that fear is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t matter how convincing Richard Dawkins might be, you’d better continue worshiping God – just in case. If God is really as vengeful as he’s described in the Old Testament, you’d be a fool not to hedge your bets.

This line of reasoning was popularized by Blaise Pascal, and is often called Pascal’s Wager. It’s only a good wager, by the way, if the God of the next life is indeed our Judeo-Christian one; if he’s Muslim or one of any of the hundreds of others cultures around the world have believed in, then too bad – so sad. People who worship God for this reason aren’t actually making one single bet; they are actually doubling down on that gambit a number of times – wagering that God exists, that this God is the one our particular culture believes in, that the Bible is indeed the blueprint for how to worship him, and finally, that he’d not be angry with people who were fearful bet-hedgers, not true believers.

Others aren’t worried about facing a vengeful God so much as they fear what Dennett calls a ‘catastrophic collapse of consensus.’ This is perhaps part of what’s driving religious interference in politics. People who fear this may have a nostalgia for what they remember as a simpler time, when it seemed being American meant the same thing to everyone, that it included being Christian, middle class, trusting of government, etc. There is a some validity to this fear. We can see a number of failed states in the world today – Afghanistan, Somalia, and others – and part of what contributed to the un-winding of these states, as it were, was a sharp division in religious belief. People who think this way may not even want to discuss religious issues with non-believers, as that in itself undermines consensus. I don’t agree with the proposed remedy – that we need to get God back in the schools and in the halls of government, but I do see the driving force behind the fear.

Love is another reason to continue believing, even when you have serious doubts. Who wants to hurt their parents, friends and family by admitting that they no longer – or never did – believe? Some have suggested that Charles Darwin postponed the publication of his Origin of Species for many years, so that he would not aggrieve his wife. We might follow our hearts to places our heads advise us against. While I personally could never serve God out of fear of punishment alone, I see love as a valid reason, on several levels. I continued going to church services long after I got anything out of them at all because I didn’t want to hurt my friends and family. And while I think that we as Americans need to build a consensus that isn’t a Christian consensus, I too am terrified of some of the trends I see in this country.

I haven’t mentioned all of the reasons Dennett talks about – including the Concorde Fallacy; I have to leave you some reason to click on the video below and watch for yourself!

What do you think of Dennett’s ideas? And, going back to our original question, do you believe? Or do you believe in belief? I’d love to read your comments.

1 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am
Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece. Site of...

Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece.

Read 1 Thessalonians and follow along.

Most Bible scholars believe this to be the oldest of the New Testament books (although James has its supporters as well). It was written to the people of Thessaloniki, a city that exists to this day in northern Greece. In Paul’s day, it was a key trading city that lay on an important overland route from Rome to the gateway of Asia. Paul, Silas, and Timothy started a church here around 50 CE, but were forced leave in a hurry, as their lives were in danger. Later, Timothy returned to find the church doing well, and Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians upon hearing the good news. So, this letter would have been written 54-56 CE, making it the very first Christian writing that we know of today.

Now you might ask why the earliest known Christian writing occurs a full 25 years or so after the death of Christ. Well, this dating is not the work of some liberal scholar trying to convince us that the whole of Christianity is a myth created long after Jesus’ death. In fact, conservative scholars pretty much agree with this date as well. There are a couple of reasons why the early church leaders waited so long to write anything down.

We have to remember that Jesus and his disciples were pretty much a rough and tumble bunch of carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, which means they may not have known how to write – we do have the story of Jesus writing something in the sand, but we don’t have any information other than that. Remember that Palestine at the time of Christ was the backwater of the Roman empire, not a bastion of learning and education – sort of the Alabama of the empire. Paul of Tarsus, on the other hand, was educated in both the Hebrew and Classical forms of education, according to tradition, which made him well-qualified to present the ideas of a religion steeped in Jewish history to the masses of the Roman state. But why wait so long?

The consensus seems to be that the original followers of Jesus were so sure that he was coming back any day, that they didn’t see any need to make any written records of their ideas. All of Jesus’ followers were fervently preaching the ‘good news’ as hard and fast as they could – before Jesus returned. If Jesus was coming back within their lifetimes, there wasn’t much time to worry about all the intricacies of doctrine – they simply wanted as many converts as possible. Only after time had passed – and the prospect that Jesus may not return as soon as they hoped began to loom large in their minds – only then did his followers began to feel the need to write down a few important ideas for the faithful who might outlive them. We’ll see the writers of the NT address some of these concerns as we move through the different letters and gospels.

Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1, there isn’t anything that will surprise you if you’ve ever attended a church service. Believers already refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even at this early date. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by is also mentioned in this chapter; from a Christian point of view, I think it’s critical to see this belief as evident from the very first Christian writing in existence.

In verse 10, however, there is an idea that causes me some real concern – waiting for Jesus to return from heaven and save believers from some sort of ‘coming wrath’. I can try to understand why Paul and others living in the first century might expect Jesus to come back from heaven; nearly 2000 years later, I don’t understand why many folks are still waiting. Why can’t we admit, after all these years and hundreds of calamities from which Christians have not been spared, that perhaps Paul was mistaken? He never met Jesus face to face, having only encountered him in a powerful vision. Is it possible – just for the sake of argument – that the church is incorrect in this aspect?

I remember listening to sermons about the rapture when I was a teenager, and feeling a little bit guilty that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want it to happen right away. I wanted to go to heaven, for sure, and missing out on any future calamity seemed pretty good too. I just wanted God to wait and let me enjoy life here for at least a little while first. I wanted to fall in love, get married, see some of the world, maybe enjoy a few earthly luxuries – then it would be alright for him to come back. The fear of the ‘coming calamity’ certainly kept me on my toes, but inside, I hoped it wasn’t true.

Whether or not you believe in the imminent return of Christ, the rapture of the church, or other related pre-determined futures, take a minute to at least see the dangers these ideas present to our current society. Many churches preach that the world is going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back to fix everything himself. Don’t worry if you’re a Christian – you won’t be subjected to the worst of it. In fact, you’ll live a happy, healthy and wealthy life until just before all hell breaks loose (literally), at which time you’ll be snatched away to heaven.

I’d say this ideology does a lot of damage to our democracy. If Jesus is coming back any day now, what need do we have to try to make sure American society continues to progress 20-30 years into the future? No need to cooperate with anyone else to make the world a better place – Jesus is coming back to fix all that anyway. Peak oil? Not a problem – Jesus will come back before we run out of oil; in fact, maybe a global war for oil is just what is needed to hasten his appearance! The world’s political systems have to be broken so that Jesus can reign as king on Earth. Scary stuff, unless you think you’re going to be raptured – what’s to worry about?

Here’s where a strong dose of secularism is needed. I’m not going to ask you to surrender your faith, but as an American, it is your civic duty prepare for our future as if Jesus were not coming back, soon or otherwise. It is your duty to elect officials that will strive to improve our lives – not morally, that’s the work of the pastor, teacher, or philosopher – but in real, measurable and observable ways.

We Americans must stop pretending there will be no tomorrow, or that someone or something other than our own intellect can make a better tomorrow – or start preparing to be servants to those not hindered by such ideas.