Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Love Joni Eareckson Tada

I've never met her. Never communicated with her in any way. But as a young man I read her eponymous book detailing how her young, athletic life was redirected after a terrible diving accident.

She was left a quadriplegic, but rather than allowing that to defeat her she reinvented herself. Today she's a well-known author, radio host, and spokesperson for the disability community. She also has been waging a courageous battle against breast cancer.

Her story gripped me. It made me uncomfortable. How much she accomplished from what would be to most of us an almost unmanageable situation!

But it wasn't always so. During her early rehabilitation depression often got the better of her, even to the point of leading her to ask friends to help her commit suicide. Her faith in God was severely challenged.

But slowly she grew in grace. She learned to paint, holding a paint brush between her teeth. While I had allowed so much less than that brave lady has gone through shipwreck my faith, she somehow got it all together and has been an effective spokesperson for religious belief in the face of tragedy.

Yes, it made me very uncomfortable, and really always has, that by comparison I have lived a charmed life and have achieved so little of lasting value compared to what Joni has accomplished with all she has to work through.

Frankly her theology is not my theology. As I understand from her writings, she is somewhat a Calvinist. She contributed a chapter to John Piper's book Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. On her Joni and Friends website she has often tackled the problem of suffering, as for example in this piece on How can God permit Cancer?

But she is a champion of hope. She writes:

Let me explain. Lamentations chapter 3:32-33 says, “Though God brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” Did you catch that? Did you read it? Yes, he brings grief, but it doesn’t give him joy in doing it. Yes, he permits painful circumstances, but it doesn't make Him happy, watching us squirm! I like how Dr. John Piper explains it. He says that because God's ways are so much higher than ours; He has the capacity to look at cancer through two lenses: a narrow lens and a wide-angle one. When God looks at a disease through a narrow lens, he sees the heartbreak for what it is; it is awful! God feels the sting in his chest when your doctor says, "You have cancer."

However, when God looks at your condition through his wide-angle lens, he sees it in relation to everything leading up to it, as well as flowing out from it. How your battle will strengthen your faith; how your battle will make you more prayerful; how this cancer will inspire you to encourage others … make you empathetic toward those who hurt; draw you, your family, and friends closer together. And best of all, God delights in how a battle against disease will give you a platform to share your story, and so much more. These things are God's wide-angle view of disease and disability. He sees this grand mosaic stretching into eternity, and it is this mosaic with all its parts, both good and bad, light and dark, that includes his wonderful plan for you.

She has written often on this theme, as in her book When God Weeps. Hers is not a sadistic God, not one who vindictively sends thunderbolts crashing down on his children, but as she wrote in another of her books, The God I Love, “Sometimes God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”

It is sometimes difficult to make sense of those who believe so strongly in God's sovereignty and what role that plays on the problem of evil and suffering. But conservative Christians like Joni believe that we live in a fallen world. Things aren't as they should be, as they started out to be before sin entered, and how they will be again someday.

So I think the following probably best sums up Joni Eareckson Tada's thinking on the matter when discussing her diving accident:

So... who caused my diving accident? I could ask, "Was it God's fault?" and be assured that although He's sovereign, no, it was not His fault. I could ask, "Well then, was my accident a direct attack from the devil?" and yes, maybe it was. Or, I could press further and say that it was not the direct assault of either the devil or God, but simply the consequence of living in a fallen world fraught with dangers (like a shifting sandbar in the shallow water of the Chesapeake Bay).

And again as she also wrote:

Finally, does God ordain? Permit? Plan? Allow? You know the verb is not so much the important thing as the noun: God — He is the noun — and God is love.

Does that answer satisfy me? Not exactly. That's not the way I think about it. But maybe my heart isn't exactly right.

This much I do know. Joni's story has moved me ever since I first encountered it so many years ago. She and her ministry has been a presence in my life ever since. Whatever I could say about the problem of suffering and God, it could never carry the weight her thoughts do, because she speaks from the depths of suffering.

I love Joni Eareckson Tada because she is a messenger of hope with the credentials to back up her message. I love her because she demonstrates one is never defeated unless one accepts defeat. I love her because she exemplifies how one life can make a difference, even under the most trying circumstances. I love her because she is and always has been an inspiration to me.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Consider The Mighty Oak

Max Muller, the nineteenth century philologist and orientalist, delivered lectures in 1891 on the subject of Anthropological Religion. Obviously these lectures are dated now, but he used the oak tree as a symbol of the history of the human attempt to come to grips with the concept of a higher power. I still find that symbol helpful.

Muller said:

I should go so far as to say that the history of religion is the best proof of religion just as the growth of the oak-tree is the best proof of the oak-tree. There may be excrescences there may be dead leaves there may be broken branches but the oak-tree is there once for all whether in the sacred groves of Germany or at Dodona or in the Himalayan forests. It is there not by our own will but by itself or by a Higher Will. There may be corruptions there may be antiquated formulas there may be sacred writings flung to the wind but religion is there once for all in all its various representations. You can as little sweep away the oak-tree with its millions of seeds from the face of the earth as you can eradicate religion, true religion, from the human heart.

Some think there will be a day when religion will have run its course in the hearts of humans. But I doubt it, just a Muller did.

Our ideas about God have evolved over the millennia and will continue to evolve in the centuries ahead.

I believe God has hardwired into the human mind the impulse to seek him. To quote Muller again:

There will be and can be no rest till we admit, what cannot be denied, that there is in man a third faculty, which I call simply the faculty of apprehending the Infinite, not only in religion, but in all things; a power independent of sense and reason, a power in a certain sense contradicted by sense and reason; but yet, I suppose, a very real power, if we see how it has held its own from the beginning of the world — how neither sense nor reason has been able to overcome it, while it alone is able to overcome both reason and sense.

Yes, the growth of the oak tree is the proof of the oak tree. 

Leaping Into The Not Fully Known

I worry about those religious folks who think they have it all figured out. If God exists he is much a mystery. I can believe, even in the midst of my doubts. In fact, my favorite religious believers are those whose faith is tempered (not hampered) by doubt. They are less likely to become nuts about it. They are also more inclined to believe that life has purpose and that if that is true we should be trying to make a difference, to be a force for good in this world.

The recent passing of two people of faith has fueled my imagination. One was aid-worker Kayla Mueller, who I wrote a post on the other day. She was an "unwavering" believer in God who actually put her faith into action.

Andrew Shepherd, a friend of Mueller's, said:

Mueller was unwavering in her faith, Shepherd said, but he learned that she struggled with the concept of organized religion and dogma.

"She saw God in a bigger sense than that," said Shepherd, now a pastor in Portland, Ore. "God was something that you met in the world. I think she was the authentic seeker. She was still trying to figure out who God was all of the time."

That certainly works for me and my vision of faith. God is bigger than the narrow-mindedness of some of his followers.

The other person is New York Times journalist who, according to this item in The Washington Post, had a "messy relationship" with faith:

Am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good?

That’s sort of as far as I’ve gotten with the higher-power thing. I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I’ve done terrible things, and yet I’m for the most part able to be a decent person. … I think something else is working on me.

What a great thought about God: that force that influences us towards the good.

Religious faith isn't a blind leap into the dark. It is a hopeful leap into the not fully understood.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Do We Own Them?

Gun-toting atheist Craig Stephen Hicks stands accused of shooting to death three young Muslims in North Carolina.

Hey, that's what atheists do, right?


I'm very aware of the rush by religious believers to tie Hicks' atheism to his motivation.

I'm also well aware that atheists are often guilty of using the same tactic.

Should extremists within the respective religious and non-religious worldviews serve as examples of logic carried to conclusion? Do we own the extremists in our chosen view?

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins asked:

How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?

Let's all agree.

Can we also agree that extremism is not an argument against a particular worldview?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Poppy God

Discussions about God often take a nasty turn. Nonbelievers often get the feeling (not at all unjustly, unfortunately) that believers are trying to force their ideas on them. Believers are sometimes troubled by the feeling that nonbelievers are trying to take their belief away from them (that happens, too).

It just isn't important for me to try convert anyone to belief in God. It is enough for me that after years and years of struggling with the matter, I feel I have come to terms with it. At least for myself.

Do I ignore the difficulties of belief in God? No. The problem of suffering, for example, still weighs on me. It's just that I am more moved by the wondrousness of the cosmos and human existence.

On the other hand, it seems to me the atheistic viewpoint takes the absurd unlikeliness of the cosmos emerging by chance alone too lightly. They can't find a Supreme Intelligence behind it all because they rule out the possibility of such to begin with.

That is their privilege, of course, and I think everyone should have the right to think for themselves about it.

As I was reading Professor of History and Religious Studies Jeffrey Burton Russell's short book A History of Heaven, the following passage jumped out at me because it so speaks for the way I think:

We do not understand the poppy by plucking and dissecting it, but by being embraced by it, by its poppiness, and through it by God, who has brought it forth from himself. Though we cannot know the divine essence, God shows us his energeia, his manifested nature in the cosmos, through all that comes from him. Every creature is a theophany, a manifestation of God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Eyes Of Kayla Mueller

I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.

The quote above is from the late ISIS captive Kayla Mueller. She found God in suffering. More than just a dry theological question, for Kayla suffering was a spur to act out her faith.

You see, faith is more about action than sitting back and talking about one's convictions. As I've come around to what I feel is a more mature belief in God, it is important for me to focus on what all believers in God have in common - or perhaps I should say should have in common. That is, the desire to do the right, the godly, thing.

I live in the so-called Bible Belt of the United States. Where I live the name of Jesus is on just about everyone's lips. It pains me to say the majority of these folks I know live very unlike their alleged savior. Do they never notice that Jesus spent more time defending the poor and helping the suffering than he spent preaching about correct belief?

Nonbelievers are sometimes content to use suffering as a reason not to believe. Yet in what other way are all humans bound together if not in suffering? Not all of us love; not all love nature; not all of us seek God in organized religion - but all of us suffer. The hands that attempt to relieve suffering are the very hands of God.

We know a whole lot more about how Kayla Mueller lived than how she died. But that's okay, because for all of us the way we live is what will be remembered more than the way we die.

God bless the memory of Kayla Mueller

Monday, February 9, 2015

God's Racket

While searching online reports of the subject of my last post, I noted the following comment from a skeptical reader in the comments section:

That's quite the racket God has going for him. All the praise and none of the blame.

I had to wonder if that commentor is aware of the long history of believers in God asking an anguished, "Why, God?" The Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of such examples.

From time immemorial there has been a tension between God's providence and human freedom. The original answer, I suppose, was that the gods are as capricious as humans.

If the view is entertained that humans are in a sense co-creators with God because of human freedom, perhaps some of the sting of the intellectual problem of evil and suffering is soothed. At least it would mean that God isn't just dishing out goods and evils according to some highly detailed "master plan."

Does that get God "off the hook" and relieve him of blame?

I suppose it is better to ask whether God should or should not have created a world with freedom of the will in the first place. Was it better to create or not create? Which brings to my mind a further question: Can the finite mind presume to answer that question?

My thinking along these lines is very much skeletal. My confession: The problem of evil and suffering has always been a problem and stumbling block for me.

My personal understanding of the Logos behind the Comos is still evolving and developing.

To proclaim God as mysterious is not a cop-out. It is an admission of finite ignorance.

Perhaps no greater damage has been done to the cause of theology than that of humans speaking authoritatively about that which they so poorly understand.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


The word miracle gets tossed around way too freely and thoughtlessly in this God-believer's opinion. I do believe in miracles if by that is meant concrete examples of the divine touching the mundane in order to make an impression. Too many personal experiences for me not to believe. Oh, not the Charlton Heston playing Moses and parting the Red Sea in grand fashion like in the movie The Ten Commandments type of miracle - but some things just seem too coincidental to be mere coincidence. That's what I mean by miraculous.

Take this story about 14-year-old John Smith, who was rescued from the bone-chilling waters of Lake St. Louise after more than fifteen minutes of submersion.

Doctors said he had no heartbeat for 45 minutes and called in his mom for her to say good-bye. Dr. Nancy Bauer said "He was gone; I've never felt someone so cold in my life." But instead of saying bye John's mom started to pray. And shortly thereafter, according to Dr. Bauer, his heart was beating again, giving her a case of the goosebumps.

And now John Smith is heading home! He feels the only explanation is God and that God wanted him to live.

Okay, this isn't the first or only time a person submerged in icy water is revived without brain damage. Not a miracle you think? But the timing - right after a mother's heartfelt prayer - surely is "miraculous" enough that some take it as a sign.

I once told the story on my previous blog of how my late older brother was diagnosed with leukemia as an infant, way before I was born. My parents were crushed and began at once to pray for his life. The next day the astounded doctors told my parents there was obviously a mistake and my brother didn't have leukemia and a death sentence.

At the time I related that, as a pantheist, I was inclined to write it off as a simple misdiagnosis. Perhaps it was. Perhaps not. But one thing is for sure, my parents didn't think it was a mistake. They felt God had answered their prayers. Either way - mistake or miracle - the impression made lasted a lifetime, and neither doubted the value of prayer thereafter.

As I wrote earlier, too many personal experiences have convinced me that God is in the details. The experiences of others impress me as well. For a time I allowed myself to forget. Life itself is a miracle and is filled with miracles, I believe, if we have a heart to understand.

Don't Overestimate Matter

Atheist Conor Faughnan responded to an article written by a Catholic which implied that British atheist Stephen Fry's recent outburst against his (Fry's) conception of God was misguided. You can read Faughnan's piece by clicking this link.

If there is one reason I have concluded in my own mind that God-belief is to be preferred over atheism it is this: the atheists are asking a whole lot of matter; more than seems reasonable to my way of thinking.

Fry's outburst (I provided a link to this in my last post) drew from the problem of suffering. His Catholic critic suggested (correctly in my opinion) that matter can't produce a moral law - which one would need in order to attempt to characterize God as immoral.

I'll get to Faughnan's response to that shortly, but first I want to look at an atheist cliche that always seems to get trotted out when morality is discussed between believers and nonbelievers.

Faughnan writes:

Atheism does imply that there is no supernatural policeman watching your life and listening to your thoughts.

Neither punishment nor reward awaits after death. For me, that says that an atheist acting in a moral manner actually has a purer motive in doing so than someone who expects a pay-off for it.

Do atheists not teach their children to respect the authority of the police and rule of law? Do they not warn their children that flaunting the law brings severe consequences, even prison? And if they do, are they then guilty of teaching their children a less pure motive for being a law abiding citizen?

Is avoiding fines, public censure and prison merely payoffs? For that matter, does not the atheist slogan "be good for goodness' sake" become a payoff if the act of doing good produces the warm fuzzies?

I'm just suggesting the atheist cliche about religious morality is a misrepresentation of theistic morality.

But more to my point, Faughan closes his piece with the following thought:

He should not underestimate matter; given that over 13.5 billion years it could form generations of stars, light and heavier elements, organic chemistry, simple and then complex life, and eventually sentient beings capable of morality, love and philosophy.

As I suggested, that's asking a lot of matter.

How does matter do all that? Atheism represents the view that the cosmos - amazing and unlikely as it is - is, when all is said and done, a colossal oddball coincidence.

The spiritual worldview inclines to belief that mind has primacy over matter. That is, morality, love and philosophy are not produced by matter, but rather objectively exist and then are discovered by sentient beings.

If the human mind is itself a coincidence, can it be said that morality and love even exist at all? That is, do they have an objective meaning or is it all semantics? Does truth exist or is a multitude of perceptions and opinions all there is?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

I Wonder

(picture courtesy my good friend Kathy)

I was reading a very interesting article by Emma Barnett concerning belief in God. She made some points that really strike a chord with me and my thinking.

Especially this one. With reference to recent comments about God uttered by comedian Stephen Fry she suggested that he "may feel that “the moment you banish him [God], life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living” – but for millions of silent others, the polar opposite is true."

Because, as she correctly points out, "Theism is an intensely personal thing" and also "Fervent atheism is achingly cool" nowadays, it is perhaps impossible to know how many "silent others" there really are.

I wonder how many of us still believe there is something beyond and behind all of existence, but yet can't reconcile that belief with most of the major religious traditions?

Emma Barnett states her faith in this way:

I’m not weird or particularly religious. Nor do I reject reason or scientific progress. I just happen to think that there is an ineffable force at play that accounts for all the things we can, and crucially can’t, explain.

I feel the same way.

I wonder how many others feel that way as well but remain largely silent.

Monday, February 2, 2015

And God's Choice Is...

This is the first Super Bowl I've paid attention to in I don't know how long. I stayed around to watch the opening minutes of the game before I headed to bed. My interest solely was all the God talk surrounding this game. Apparently 1 in 4 Americans believe God determines the winner of Super Bowl.

Would God help Russell Wilson carry his team to victory? If God picked the Patriots, what would Wilson have to say?

Now we know. In the last seconds of the game, and with the Seahawks mere feet from a comeback victory, the God-powered quarterback threw an interception!

That's exactly right. Sometimes you do things correctly and a trickster comes along to upend things. In this case, the trickster was Patriot cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Or maybe God had his hand on Butler....

Then again, maybe it was a bad call by Seahawk strategists who "got out of the will of God."

It could be that God, contrary to a quarter of Americans, really doesn't care who wins; or as I suggested in my first post on this topic, God doesn't micromanage affairs.

Perhaps we will "understand it better by and by." However, the takeaway for me is that God talk can easily drift to the ridiculous.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Return

(The Prodigal Son painted by Herbert Moore)

When I admit to belief in God it no longer causes my face blush up pretty pink. Those of us who left religious faith for the "mountain peaks" of rational thought perhaps have the hardest time finding our way back.

The intellectual challenge, "What, you mean you believe that?" "You can't believe that!" "Why not go on to belief in fairies, unicorns and magic wands?" is difficult to hear when you know your explanation will not be appreciated.

After my long sojourn among the rationalists I was quite unhappy and depressed, my heart telling me one thing and my mind trying to tell me something else. No longer a child, I had tried growing up and leaving behind the kid's stuff - like belief in God.

Making my journey via Christian fundamentalism did me no good at all. Rationalism is hugely successful when religious belief is inextricably entwined to an ancient "holy book."

There's an old axiom in boxing: "kill the body and the head will die." Sound advice because the body is a larger target than the head and more difficult to move and protect. Likewise, in the struggle to construct a worldview, kill belief in holy books and the idea of God should die.

The rationalists pounded away at my Bible and I was winded. I was down. But not for the count. Strangely enough an idea from that champion of infidelity Robert G. Ingersoll lodged in my mind and later became my - pardon the expression - "salvation."

Ingersoll brought up the salient point: "If books had existed before man, I might admit there was such a thing as a sacred volume."

It took a while for the implications of that thought to take hold of my mind.

For some folks that body blow might knock the wind out of them. But for me it paved the way for me to consider the idea that man is intrinsically religious and naturally geared toward belief in a Creator and sustainer.

Therefore, the Bible (or Quran, Vedas, Avesta, Book of Mormon, Book of Certitutde, etc.) is the product of human minds. Granted, the product of human minds imbued by a divine spark, but human and finite nevertheless.

It followed in my thinking that sacred scriptures didn't give us truth about God so much as human experiences of the divine reality. These experiences are varied and colored by the times in which they were written. They are valuable when used appropriately, but harmful when misused as the end-all and be-all of how things are supposed to be.

The rationalist is at his strongest when he is attacking a holy book or fundamentalism (which in my thinking is mistaking the symbol for what is symbolized) based on holy books.

But when that rationalism is turned towards the ultimate questions of life, it loses a lot of its punch.

My return to God is not based on reason as much as intuition; that is, an attentive attitude - that small voice inside me, or to borrow a Quaker phrase, that "inner light."

Rufus Jones explained it thus: "The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul." And for me that trumps the need for apologetics - not in that reason has no role to play in my faith in God, but that it is insufficient alone.

Now obviously I can't ignore the scriptures and belief system that once shaped my outlook. It already permeates much of my religious thought. But I read those scriptures and that system in a new way now. I don't limit myself to human books either, because the book of nature has secrets to reveal, I believe, for its author is God. 

I'm hoping others from the various traditions will find the courage to do the same and that one day we can meet somewhere in the clearing.