Archive for the Category ◊ Things most people will disagree with ◊

03 Aug 2013 Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

. . . and why he has no intention of going back anytime soon . . . 

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post at CNN recently that set off a miniature firestorm among those interested in spiritual things and the state of the Christian church in the United States. Her post, entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” has elicited strong reactions. Most of the ones I’ve read have been largely negative.

Unfortunately, both Evans’ original article and every response to it that I’ve encountered, suffer from over-generalization. The assumption at work is that there is A Reason for millennials leaving the church. Detractors fill in terms like “narcissistic” or “consumerist” to try to explain the emotions that drive young people out of the walls of church buildings . . . as if everyone who leaves does so because the church isn’t catering specifically enough to their own individual whims. What has largely been lacking in the discussion – particularly from the “anti” side, but even from Evans’ perspective – is the stated viewpoint of an actual millennial who has actually “left the church.”

Having been what I like to call a “post-congregational Christian” for the past seven years, I thought I’d offer one. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself – like I said, there is no single reason for the phenomenon Evans observes. What follows are my reasons.

Like Evans herself, I’m a 32-year-old with one foot in Generation X and one in the Millennial camp. For those interested in reading the story of my journey out of the institutional church, I’ve written about it before, here.

I haven’t written much on the subject since then – I’ve felt the need to spend the last several years doing much more in the way of listening to God, and much less in the way of talking about my relationship with Him to others who aren’t in the same place I am. But the short version of this seven-year journey is that I haven’t so much left the church, as I’ve left the church building. Sadly, too many people – both those who’ve left and those who’ve watched them go – confuse the church universal and the church institutional. They are not the same thing at all, and some (though not all) of us who leave the latter are still very active in the former.

Why, then, did I leave the institution? The answer is something of a conglomeration of three reasons which, I suspect, animate most of those who leave the institutional church, though perhaps in different proportions. That’s not to say that people – even young people – can’t find an incredible amount of comfort, wisdom and insight within their local church. But that’s certainly not what some of us find. What I found – what I suspect many millennials find – is a church that is paranoid, abusive and extraneous.

Institutionalized Paranoia

Evans covers this category fairly well, though she doesn’t necessarily draw the connection I’m trying to make here. She writes: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She gives several examples, and in a follow-up post, she boils these down to:

“Young adults in the U.S. consistently reported that they left the church because they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”

These factors all have one thing in common. They are indicators of an institution that is – like all institutions – invested first and foremost in its own survival. If you look at each of the faults young people find in their local church institutions, the one thing they’ve all encountered is fear: fear of sex and its consequences, fear of doubt and its ramifications, fear of “the gay agenda” or of what the latest experiments at CERN might uncover about how the world works . . . fear of what they might find if they start asking real questions about the things they claim to believe.

Somewhere along the line, the institutional church lost Romans 8:31 . . . “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” . . . and the verses that surround it. The 21st Century Church – be it evangelical, mainline protestant, or some other denomination – has taken upon itself the burden of helping God out in ways He never asked it to.

Small wonder, too, for the institutional church has been rooted in fear for practically its entire existence. In the first century after Christ’s ministry, that fear was the very reasonable terror of persecution – as it still is in much of the world. In fact, Hebrews 10:21, the verse most commonly leveled against those of us who no longer attend Sunday services at a local congregation, was written precisely to backstop the early Christians against living in fear, urging them to stay connected to one another rather than retreating into isolation in response to the threat. Later, the Constantinian institutionalization of the church came about as a natural response to that fear: coopting the levers of power and aiming them in other directions away from the church. The Inquisition and the Crusades were driven by a church afraid of any dissenting voices or competing worldviews, and the Protestant Reformation quickly aggregated political power to itself to counter the predictable Catholic backlash. Our own country’s founding is a virtual catalog of fear-based faith: from Puritan Massachusetts to Catholic Maryland to Quaker Pennsylvania to Baptist Rhode Island, the story of American colonization is the story of powerful religious majorities engaging in persecution stemming from the fear of dissent, and of hated religious minorities fleeing in fear from those more powerful than they.

That’s an oversimplification, of course – as any attempt to boil the entirety of church history down into a single paragraph must necessarily be. But the point is that the author of Hebrews knew then what we have now forgotten, the same thing the Apostle Paul told his young protege in 2nd Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

I’d love to see more of that in our churches today. So, I suspect, would many other millennials. Instead, the institution focuses on so-called “threats” to its existence (like sex, gay people, and sex with gay people) sometimes to the exclusion of actually practicing what Christ preached. And those of us who are more interested in James’ definition of “Pure religion and undefiled” are accused of compromising with, accommodating, and (heaven forfend) tolerating “the world.”

It’s a definition of compromise that makes it fairly easy to see how people like Fred Phelps and Eric Rudolph become who they are. If every day we aren’t jumping in someone’s face and explaining to them that “you’re wrong about Jesus and you’re going to hell for it,” is a day we’re “compromising with evil,” then Phelps and Rudolph are simply taking that line of thought all the way through to its logical conclusion.

Some of those who leave the church actually do compromise, of course – actually do throw out what they know to be right in order to maintain good standing with the “in” set. Others of us are just fairly sure God can handle any existential threats to the survival of the universal church without our help, and we have very, very different ideas about what constitutes an “existential threat.”

Of course, when we express those different ideas, the response is often . . .

Spiritual Abuse

Let me describe for you the churches I’ve attended in my lifetime as more than just a casual visitor. Here they are, in order:

* First there was the Baptist church whose pastor was dipping into the church’s finances for his own pet projects, and who deliberately removed families from the church’s prayer list because he felt their decision to home school their children was a threat to the private school operated by the church.

* Most of my childhood and formative years were spent in a non-denominational fundamentalist church that castigated members for listening to rock music, attending movies, playing cards, accruing any sort of debt, and (for the girls) wearing pants or open-toed shoes. This one was also very heavily involved in an organization that has quite accurately been termed “Pharisee School.” Perhaps I should have taken it as a pretty stark warning sign when the church leadership specifically instructed us how to respond to accusations of legalism by providing an alternate definition that was so narrowly specific as to exempt them from the charge. But I was just a teenager at the time and I was involved up to my ears in various church ministries, so I missed the warnings – or at least missed enough of them that I stayed put. I was one of the “good kids” (or was at least very heavily invested in being seen as one of the good kids), so I followed the rules and refrained from making waves.

* When I moved out of state for college, I found a home church that was a comfortable fit for me at the time, precisely because it was so similar in many ways to the previous one.

* Next, I attended a large, Neo-Calvinist church for awhile and considered joining it. I ended up elsewhere, and only later discovered this church was sheltering multiple child-abusers behind the scenes in the name of “forgiveness,” while ostracizing their victims because they wanted to bring the matters before law enforcement rather than letting the church handle it internally.

* I ended up joining a large reformed Southern Baptist church. It was a good fit in some ways for where I was at the time, and the small-group discussions I had with other guys my age were incredible. My experiences with the church leadership were . . . less so. I had an “accountability relationship” with one of the elders who  felt the best way to help me deal with a then-longstanding porn addiction was not to take a look at the underlying root issues behind what I was doing, but simply to put some software on my computer so he could see every website I visited. Later, when I started having serious doubts about some of the church’s stances on given issues, I ended up in long talks with the assistant pastor and a couple of the elders, who ultimately told me that unless I shaped up and started showing up to meetings more often, they were thinking about putting me under church discipline. I left instead, and I haven’t been inside a church since then except for the occasional wedding or Christmas Eve sing-along service.

There have been others here and there, but those are the main ones. The common theme is, of course, that the leaders at each of these institutions considered themselves either above the “common folk” of the church, or considered themselves justified in exercising broad controls over very minute areas of members’ lives . . . or, in some cases, both. It was later, when I became acquainted with Jeff VanVonderen’s and David Johnson’s book on the topic, that I discovered a name for what I’d been experiencing: Spiritual Abuse.

I’m far from alone, and mine is very far from the worst story I’ve heard. I’ve seen others of my generation tormented by the leadership of their own institutions for things like having a relationship with a member of a different denomination, expecting the father of an out-of-wedlock child to be held to the same standards as the child’s mother, and having the unmitigated gall to be afflicted with bipolar disorder, severe chemical sensitivities, or some other malady that made it difficult to interact with a large congregation of people in an enclosed space on a regular basis. I’ve known people whose pastors and “spiritual authorities” used counseling sessions to exploit vulnerable people for physical and emotional abuse, and I’ve known churches which, if they ever found out what was going on, were more interested in covering up the abuse and protecting the abusers than in helping out the victims.

That’s certainly not everyone’s experience, and not every church family has experienced these kinds of horror stories, but there are enough of them out there that I suspect many millennials have similar experiences – or worse – and just can’t take it anymore. I couldn’t. Even without the severe trauma that has affected some, what I found was an institution specifically designed to facilitate a relationship with Christ, that was instead having exactly the opposite effect.

Alternative Spaces

Rachel Held Evans might respond that I just hadn’t tried the right church (which in her case turned out to be the United Methodist Church). Others have certainly responded that way upon hearing my story.

The problem is that the institutionalized paranoia that leads some churches far enough to be abusive is, quite simply, baked into the cake. It’s part of what a church is, particularly in 21st Century America where any church is just another corporation, with a pastor as its CEO, elders as its Board of Directors, and a statement of faith as its articles of incorporation. Like any corporation, it exists first and foremost to promote and prolong its own existence. And like all corporations, this leads it to engage in behavior that is incredibly risk-averse. In my life, the total number of local, institutional churches I’ve come across where the leadership has made the decision that it was in the members’ best interests not to “rebrand,” or “adjust,” or “make substantial changes,” but to actually shut its doors and let its members find alternative spiritual homes, is exactly one. I can tell you this much from personal knowledge and experience: the number of churches that would greatly benefit their members by doing so is far higher than that.

David Hayward, a former pastor who has written much about the issues and abuses of the institutional church on his blog, writes this in response to Evans’ article:

I agree [with Evans] that the church is fascinated with tweaking but not transforming itself. I agree there needs to be substantial change . . . The substantial change people are talking about, in my opinion, is not substantial enough. Again, the substantial changes suggested are, in their own way, a more radical form of tweaking. I suspect a much deeper change is coming because the church is becoming not only less and less relevant, but less and less necessary.

Hayward gets what Evans misses: that the institution itself – which once served as the sole source of comfort for threatened individuals hiding for their lives – has become extraneous. He notes in a follow-up post that even those who recognize the fault of the institution in the current state of affairs maintain the same tired old “blame the victim” mentality I noted above.

For awhile I was content to be my local church’s resident “problem child,” the lightning-rod who drew fire in order to make sure certain issues were brought up and addressed. I still have good friends who play that role in their own local churches. I admire them for it, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I left, among other reasons, because my very presence in the church was a distraction for other people whose relationship with God was in a different place than mine. Either they had to be forced to dwell on and address issues and questions that weren’t what God was working on in their lives at that time, or I had to sit down and shut up.

Or I had to leave. So I left.

I last set foot in a church service more than seven years ago. Yet nothing stops me from fully engaging in the life of the universal church – sans institution. I regularly listen to wise men (and yes, women too!) expound on scripture via podcast or YouTube video (for that matter, I’ve listened to some not-so-wise ones, as well).

In the last few months I’ve had deep, engaging spiritual conversations with friends from a variety of faith perspectives including evangelical, neo-calvinist, orthodox, catholic, neo-charismatic and others. My “immediate spiritual family” includes friends in my own neighborhood, throughout the D.C. Metro area, across the country, even literally on the other side of the world . . . people whom I can contact at a moment’s notice to ask for advice or prayer on any subject I wish.

The man who has taught me more than anyone else about extricating “the church” from the institution that bears its name has also inspired a renewed love of scripture, and I’ve gone through the Bible 2 1/2 times in the past year alone learning new and exciting things about God with each reading. I’ve begun writing a series of scripture-based short stories that I plan to share with my son when he’s old enough. I’ve even taken communion right there at my own dinner table.

One of the things I discovered when I left the institutional church was how very narrow my exposure to alternative perspectives had been. What I knew of the beliefs of other faiths – and even other Christian denominations – I knew only from the perspective of their detractors. Every look at any viewpoint departing from the church’s specific creeds was examined only with an eye toward how to critique it.

All of which left me with the question: Why on earth would I need some corporate creation to help me do all these things when I can access a much broader, more well-rounded set of perspectives on my own?

And what about giving back? Nothing prevents me from opening my home to those in need of a place to stay, donating to relief efforts, participating in spiritually-focused conversations in a variety of online and real-world venues, or giving in a variety of other ways. I’ve come across ministry opportunities I’d never have heard of if my only spiritual interactions took place in the context of a single local congregation. It takes work – it takes seeking out opportunities and grabbing the ones that drop into your lap, rather than passively listening as someone reads them to you out of the bulletin in the Sunday morning service. And sometimes I still suck at it. But the opportunities are definitely there, and do not require a local institution as a pass-through.

Why are millennials leaving the church? For me, more than any other reason, it’s because the church as I’ve known it is a 18th Century institution in a 21st Century world. When the people across the street and around the corner were the only ones you ever knew, and when you all gathered together to share life on Sunday morning at the church in the town square, this institution made perfect sense. When I can send an email or Facebook message from Northern Virginia to a friend or spiritual mentor in California or New Zealand and get a response back in hours (or less), it doesn’t. This is the world millennials have grown up with. It’s the only world they know. It’s a world in which a 10am Sunday service at a building around the block – or the next town over – seems an anachronism. That’s not to say that literally hundreds of millions of people the world over can’t find comfort and meaning in that institution. It is to say that some of us don’t.

Why are they – we – leaving the church? Perhaps it’s because “the church” as an institution stopped making sense to us a long time ago.

Some call that selfish, or narcissistic, or consumerist. They say that even if I don’t think I need the church, the church needs me. I’ve been told various times, and in various ways, that I’m “leaving a Mike-shaped hole in some church family somewhere.”

That’s just one more retreat into a belief in a much smaller God than the one I worship. The God I worship – the God I find in Scripture – is perfectly capable of meeting the needs of His people – wherever and however they gather – without my help. Does He want my participation in the life of His body?? Certainly! But that’s not because He’s incapable of doing something if I’m not there . . . it’s because he wants to draw me closer to Him . . . to teach me more about Him . . . to spend time with me while going about His work, as any loving Father would. And it doesn’t necessarily mean He cares if I show up at the same building for Sunday School at 9am, Church at 10:30, Evening Service at 6, and mid-week prayer meeting on Wednesday nights.

This critique also ignores history. There have always been those whom God uses to reform religious institutions from the inside, and those He uses to challenge and change those institutions from the outside. Erasmus and Luther found themselves on opposite sides of this split, as did the Puritans and Separatists who settled the British colony of Massachusetts. Rachel Held Evans, it seems, is a modern-day Puritan, seeking to change the church from within.

I find myself a Separatist.

Again, I’m not claiming to speak for all millennials . . . or even for all half-GenX/half-millennial misfits like myself! This is my story, and mine alone. To those who share a piece of that story, I hope you find it encouraging. To those seeking one person’s honest viewpoint about why the pews are empty on Sunday mornings, I hope you find it enlightening. To those who find that God is most easily heard  from the seat of your chosen congregation, I’m glad you’ve found what you need in order to know Him better. To those who find yourselves feeling the weight of obligation to show up on Sundays simply because you’ve always been told that’s what a relationship with God looks like, I hope this gives you a sense that there is a way to extricate yourself from the worldview that shames people into the pews each week, without abandoning your faith and everything you believe in.

To all of you, thank you for reading.

07 Nov 2012 Where we are. Where we’ve been.

I woke up this morning deeply discouraged about the future of our country. Conservatives like to say that we are a “center-right nation,” but in a country where the challenger can win independents handily and still lose the election that is clearly no longer the case. Many, myself included, thought the polls showing Obama ahead based on 2008 demographics couldn’t possibly be right . . . that 2008 was a historical anomaly centered on the man himself, and that after the pendulum swung the other way in 2010, everything would revert to the norm in 2012. We were wrong. I was wrong. 2008 was a realignment, and the face of the country changed. That being the case, it’s worth looking back at the country we left behind us four years ago.

Four years ago, I wrote a post on this blog intended to calm the fears of readers on the right who were worried about the fate of the nation in the face of what everybody knew would be an overwhelming victory for Barack Obama. It’s never as bad as it seems, I wrote, and the election of a staunch far-left liberal masquerading as a post-partisan moderate is not the end of the world.

I will not be writing any such comforting words this time. This time the electorate’s rose-colored glasses were off. The far-left liberal ran as exactly what he is. He ran a small, vicious and mean campaign based on character assassination, and was reelected anyway. It really is as bad as it seems. It may be worse.

Four years ago, if I was the type of person who believed birth control was wrong, I could simply not use it. Now I am legally obligated to pay for other people to do so.

Four years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to for me to refuse to provide my professional services in support of an event with which I disagreed. Now, doing so might get me sued.

Four years ago, the government was not in the business of engaging in character assassination of private citizens. Now the full weight of the Presidential bully pulpit has been leveraged to attack Rush Limbaugh, Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and others by name. Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader, in violation of Senate rules, took to the floor of the chamber and gave what was essentially a campaign speech, accusing the other party’s candidate of committing felony tax fraud without a shred of evidence. The nation, collectively, shrugged.

Four years ago, I lived in a country that celebrated success in business and understood that the private sector is the economic engine of the country. Now I live in a country that demonizes profit, persecutes successful businessmen solely because they are successful businessmen, and bought into dastardly attacks on the character of a Presidential candidate that stemmed solely from the fact that he demonstrated the knowledge required to run a successful enterprise.

Four years ago, I lived in a country where I was free to express an opinion on a political, social or economic issue without being branded a racist. That is no longer the case.

Four years ago, President-elect Obama said in his victory speech, “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Yesterday he won reelection based on a strategy described by democratic advisors as, “Kill Romney.”

Four years ago, I lived in a country with a 208-year tradition of peaceful transfers of power from one party to another. Now I live in a country where hundreds of people threatened rioting and violence if the candidate I voted for was elected.

Four years ago, I lived in a country that prized self-reliance and accomplishment, while still ensuring that those who were less fortunate were cared for. Today I live in a country that voted to reelect a President whose platform consisted largely of “more free stuff.”

Four years ago, I lived in a country where people protested in the streets because a President imprisoned enemy combatants without trial in Guantanamo. Yesterday, those same protesters voted to reelect a President who summarily orders U.S. citizens as young as 16 years old to be executed without trial via drone strike.

Four years ago, I lived in a country which had just overwhelmingly elected a black man to the White House for the first time and was joyously celebrating another step closer to Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that we might all one day be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. This morning I woke up in a country where the hashtag #fuckwhitepeople was trending on Twitter.

How far we have come in four years.

Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with having said, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” As a nation, we reached that point long ago and plenty of blame belongs to both parties for that. But I fear that last night we crossed a line from which we may not be able to retreat – not because the President was reelected, but because of how and why. We looked at the disastrous fiscal policies of states like California and Illinois, and instead of saying “we need to do something better to avoid their fate,” we said “more like that, please!”

We endorsed the exportation of California’s and Illinois’ economies to the federal level. We have, perhaps irrevocably, decided as a nation NOT to do anything to address the horrific overspending that this administration (and its predecessor, and their predecessors across both parties and many administrations) have heaped upon us. I fear that the only way out now is through. This administration clearly has no interest in addressing that crisis, having caused a fair portion of it. To the extent that they DO demonstrate an interest, they have also demonstrated an utter lack of anything remotely resembling any idea of how to do so. We as a country just looked into the eyes of the two people who were proposing real solutions to a very real problem and said, “no thank you.”

No, that’s not quite right. We weren’t nearly so polite to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. We didn’t say “thank you for your service, but we’d prefer the other guy.” Instead, through months of character assassinations, personal attacks and outright lies, we gave them a big, collective “Fuck You.” We largely ensured that anybody who has even a hint of an idea for how to keep us from falling off the looming fiscal cliff is going to keep it to themselves lest they wind up being declared “Public Enemy Number One” as Romney and Ryan were. The third rail of U.S. politics is alive and well, and it doesn’t matter that we are going to be terrified to touch it now. Very soon, it will certainly reach out to touch us.

I fear for the world into which my son will grow up. I fear the world we have created for him.

17 Apr 2011 Books, Films, Wars, and Adventures in Missing the Point

So there’s been a lot going on in the world of late – both in my own personal world and in the larger world around me. Oddly, a lot of them seem connected in my mind (which occasionally also means that they are connected in real life).

In a lot of places this weekend, the first of three movies based on the wildly popular objectivist novel “Atlas Shrugged” was released, to either wide acclaim or harsh criticism that is only partially dependent on one’s political viewpoint.

In Africa, the U.S. and other countries continued to engage in what people who think the word “war” is too icky are calling a “kinetic military action” in support of rebels who seek to unseat meglomaniacal dictator Moammer Qadhaffi . . . or Moamar Kadafi . . . or Muammar Gaddafi . . . one of those guys.

Meanwhile, the evangelical world was rocked to its core recently when Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill – a well-known megachurch – released a book called “Love Wins,” which is either a testament to the love of God or a heretical embrace of universalism depending on who you ask. Actually, the evangelical world began rocking well before the book was ever released, since theological luminaries like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler took Rob Bell to task for his heresy based solely on a promo video he put out before it was even published.

Finally, in my own personal life, I’ve been reading a series of fantasy novels I’ve recently discovered: Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series.

Believe it or not, all these things seem related – at least to me – by more than the fact that they all seem to be happening at the same time.

As far as Atlas Shrugged, I’m hoping to see the movie in the very near future since it’s based on one of my favorite books, and from what I’ve heard the movie does a pretty good job living up to the book at least in this first installment.

In reading reviews, I came across this assessment – not so much a review as a political essay from a commentator who is something less than a fan of Ayn Rand. He, in turn, points to what he calls the “definitive repudiation of Rand,” written by Whitaker Chambers in 1957.

The commentator laments Ayn Rand’s influence on the Tea Party movement, and says that “No one who, as a mature adult, espouses [the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged] without reservation should be taken seriously” (Personally, I have a hard time taking seriously someone who espouses anything without reservation). Chambers, on the other hand, seems to use Rand’s rabid atheism to reject her entire philosophy out of hand . . . without reservation, so to speak.

As far as Libya, we’re mucking around seemingly without a clue as to what we’re doing there. Our objective is to help the Libyan rebels, or unseat Qadaffi, or defeat his hired merceneries, or bomb the crap out of some desert, or secure the nation’s oil supplies, or . . . whatever. Sometimes it seems like our entire purpose there is to just do something already! Ultimately, the absolute best-case scenario is probably a democratic government that is not hostile to the U.S. or its interests. How close we’ll end up to that best case is anybody’s guess.

I have yet to read the book Love Wins, so I won’t speak on what I don’t know . . . but I will say something about the controversy that’s brewing around the book. More on that a bit later.

As far as the “Sword of Truth” series, I’ve recently discovered that this series I’m enjoying has actually been made into a TV show as well, called “Legend of the Seeker.” The TV show is fairly boiler-plate fantasy/sci-fi stuff: Hero on the run from evil villain flits from place to place lending aid to random helpless strangers in passing. The characters and the stories they find themselves in are fairly accurate to the books, with some necessary alterations making it fit better on the small screen. But it really loses something in the broader scheme of things.

What it loses, is the same thing that connects all these random strings.

Unlike the TV show, the “Sword of Truth” books tell a sweeping, epic story of a brilliant, courageous young leader whose most earnest and sincere desire is to bring about a world of peace, justice and equality . . . and that’s just the story’s villain. That last sentence is not a typo.

His vision of “peace” is a world under the rule of one empire with him at its head. His idea of justice entails severe repercussions against any who stand in his way or dare to voice a countervailing opinion. His view of equality is that those who are successful are only so through avarice and greed . . . and that such success is therefore evil. Because everything one has is undeserved, in this worldview, misery is virtuous and charity is an obligation. The hero combats this view relentlessly, noting in one of the books that “Charity, if you have the means, is a personal choice, but charity which is expected or compelled is simply a polite word for slavery.”

In the TV show, the hero runs around helping those too weak to confront a difficult destiny. In the books, the hero shows people that they are strong enough to forge their own destinies. In that way, the TV show manages to miss the point rather comprehensively, almost turning the entire point of the books on its head at times.

Here’s the connection between all these random things: I think we’re suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding of freedom. In the TV show . . . in Libya . . . in the reviews about Atlas Shrugged . . . in the way we think about Hell . . .

The problem is that we think freedom is an end in and of itself. It’s not. Goodkind gets that fact in his novels. For Goodkind . . . for Rand . . . for me . . . freedom is a valued ideal, but one that only has value because of a greater ideal: self-determination.

Aren’t those the same thing, though? I don’t think so. I think freedom is merely a pathway that makes self-determination easier. Freedom is a circumstance controlled externally, whether by a government or another entity or individual. We can be free or not free, based solely on factors we cannot control.

When it comes right down to it, freedom is simply a variable in the number of choices available to me. Self-determination, on the other hand, is the act of making those choices, rather than having them made for me. Only I can decide whether to be self-determined or not. Nobody can take that away from me. Either I decide my own fate or I let somebody else do it. Even someone who has no freedom has this choice . . . even if it is the martyr’s choice between surrendering what one believes or dying for it. This quality that none can take away is that which makes me, me. It is my core. My character.

It is my soul.

And what about Rob Bell? How does all of this relate to a book about Hell?

Here’s how: One of the themes of self-determination that runs through both Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series is the theme of personal responsibility.

Some would say that Hell is, itself, the incarnation of personal responsibility . . . that it’s not a conscious decision of a vengeful God to cast people there, but that they choose to go there on their own accord as a natural consequence of their choices. C.S. Lewis, for one, seems to take such a view of Hell in his writings. I can’t speak for Rob Bell’s view because I haven’t read the book, but that’s not the point I want to make anyway. I want to make a similar point about his critics. Namely this:

What are they so spun up about?? If Bell is wrong, he’s wrong. So what? Who cares?? Presumably, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler and all the rest believe themselves to be “in the club” . . . so the only logical reason they could have for being so wound up about Bell is that they’re afraid to conceive of what a universe without hell would mean for them.

And what would it mean?? Simply that their beliefs, their actions, their every thought and word and deed would have to come from the core of who they are . . . and not from a fear of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone.

Self-determination, in other words.

After all, if I’m doing what I’m doing . . . If I believe as I do . . . simply because someone else is threatening me with a gun (or a lake of fire), then that’s just another external factor like freedom, or the lack thereof. I’m not really determining anything in and of my self.

Here’s how Matt, from the blog “Church of No People” puts it:

I might know why Universalism pisses off so many evangelicals. For most of us, if we were standing in line at the heavenly security checkpoint and God let in a drunken wife beater right before us, we’d whine because that’s not fair. We tried all our lives to walk the walk. We said the sinner’s prayer, we went to church, we fed the hungry, we followed God’s will. Why should a bunch of heathans and wife abusers, and Democrats and homosexuals get to go when they didn’t do one blasted thing they were supposed to? Does all the obedience and believing we did count for nothing?

If you are struck by the unfairness of everyone getting into heaven, it just shows that somewhere in your mind, you are still banking on the things you did in life to get into heaven, not God’s grace. Who am I to tell Jesus what the limits of his grace are? But that’s exactly what we do. Universalism always gets one reaction from reformed types and evangelical types: “There’s no way in hell those people are getting into heaven, and you’re going to hell just for suggesting otherwise!”

I have never heard a reformed or evangelical say to a Universalist, “I hope you’re right.”

There is something absolutely, painfully wrong with that.

The thought Matt puts words to here is the reason why, personally, I don’t think the whole Rob Bell controversy matters two hoots – simply because my relationship with God doesn’t depend on whether hell exists or not. I just can’t bring myself to care. I choose a relationship with God, regardless.

Others are free to do so – or not – as they choose, and to deal with whatever consequences arise from their choices. I’ll be more than happy to talk to them about my choice and share my reasons for it, but at the end of the day, what they choose is up to them.

This misunderstanding about self-determination also extends to how we think about situations like that in the Middle East. We set up new democracies who vote in new governments, and we call it a win as long as they’re not shooting at us.

What we never do is get to the heart of the matter. Take Iraq, for example, or Afghanistan. It is wonderful that these nations have the ability now to elect their own leaders and write their own

laws. But has anybody told them that each of them is free to draw his or her own destiny? For that matter, how self-determining can a person be when their culture tells them that it is more important that they are a Sunni, or a Shiite, or a Kurd, than it is that they are an individual??

If we’re going to support rebels against tyranny, that’s what we should be telling them. Not “you now have the ability to elect your own leaders from your own sect or ethnic group” but instead, “you have always had the ability to write your own future!”

And finally, this misunderstanding extends to many of those who read (or see) Atlas Shrugged. In the Whitaker Chambers “takedown” of Ayn Rand that I linked earlier, Chambers essentially asserts that Rand’s libertarian philosophy shares a logical conclusion with the Marxism she loathed. Where Marxism’s end result was a totalitarian regime that attempted to control every bit of life through force, Chambers asserts that Rand’s end result is a technocratic regime that controls every bit of life through a shared view of what is “rational” and ostracism of anybody who does not share that view. I can see how Chambers might reach that conclusion, but in order to get there, he has to ignore one thing. He has to ignore self-determination.

Yes, Rand believes in freedom. Yes, she believes in the superiority of the “men (and women) of mind.” Yes, she believes that reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Yes, she believes that people who fail to choose these things is in the wrong. But what she never does is deny them the right to make that choice.

Think whatever you wish about each of these beliefs of hers. Just realize that they are not the point. Each of these flows from a deeper belief. The belief that each of us is, by definition, a self-determined being. I think it’s possible to hold to that deepest belief, and not reach all of the same conclusions Rand did. So I think Chambers misses the point.

That point is simply this: We may be a fractured culture composed of different traditions from hundreds of different histories, but the thing . . . the ONE thing . . . we all share is the ability to make our own rational decisions. That is what sets us apart from animals. It is even, if we look at the way they are portrayed in Scripture, the thing that sets us apart from angels. For those of us who are Christians, it is something that is so innate in us . . . so important to the core of who and what we are . . . that God was willing to allow us to exercise it in Eden, even with the full knowledge that we’d choose wrong, and that our choice would cost the life of His Son.

When we miss the point . . . when we get hung up on lesser goals, even such laudable goals as freedom or democracy or charity . . . we betray who we are. Let us pursue these lesser goals, but let us always do so out of our own self-determination . . . not because we ought, but because we choose to.

It’s not that freedom doesn’t matter. It’s just that self-determination matters so much more!

15 Feb 2010 Practicality

In a Facebook conversation about my “Three-Letter Worldview” series of posts, a friend and relative of mine, Carla, challenged me to write out “how I would put the worldview into practice in a country . . . how does my worldview translate to governing?”

She applied it to my self-described libertarianism and asked, “What is the practical application for governing in a democracy such as ours? . . . How would a Libertarian or libertarian [Ed: big or little "L" . . . for the record, I consider myself the latter, not the former] set up a system of government for 300 million+ diverse human beings to live under?”

I promised to respond, and then things got a bit crazy . . . My job got very busy, and then the area got hit by two major snowstorms in the course of a single week. On top of that, I’ve been helping my wife with the advertising and graphic design for a benefit concert she and a friend are planning for Save the Children to aid earthquake victims in Haiti.

So I’ve had very little time to write. But now that things are slowing down, I wanted to respond to Carla’s question.

First, my worldview is primarily that – a view of the world . . . an interpretation of what I see around me and how I see it working (or not working, as the case may be). It is not intended as a political system or a treatise on government.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my worldview has no implications for what I consider “ideal” government. What it does mean is that, in choosing what form of government I will assent to live under, I am willing to settle for less than ideal, if in the meantime I can work – and encourage others to work – in directions consistent with that ideal.

But all that is not answering the question – it’s merely talking around it.

That said, Carla has posed a question that is really three:

1) How does my worldview translate to governing?
2) What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?
3) How would I (or any libertarian) set up a system of government for 300 million people?

First: How does my worldview translate to governing? To tell the truth, my worldview as I have laid it out here doesn’t really speak much to how governing works, except to follow the advice of my favorite founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The government that governs least governs best, because the people discipline themselves.”

Note that this commonly repeated quote is usually truncated. Generally only the first half is recalled, but my worldview is dependent on both halves – a government that is restrained, and a governed citizenry that are restrained themselves . . . by themselves.

That’s basically the only broad implication my worldview as I have laid it out here has on governing, but the question that you are surely asking at this point is, “how is that practical??”

This threads very neatly into Carla’s second question “What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?

To begin with, as I stated fairly explicitly in my worldview series, the views I hold are fairly government-agnostic. I believe that the views I hold are just as true in a democracy as they are in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, under some governments, the penalty for living a live consistent with those views may be more or less severe.

That being the case, one of the most hospitable forms of government to this worldview is that of a representative republic. Contrary to Carla’s assertion, we do not live in a democracy. This makes a tremendous difference because a republic is by far friendlier to the views I have espoused. In a democracy, a whimsical populace can inflict whatever it wishes, as long as it persuades a majority of its members to agree. In a republic, that populace is far more restrained by several factors – the supremacy of codified law, the separation of power into multiple decision-making bodies, and restrictions on how far even a legitimate majority is allowed to go in imposing its will over the minority.

But that’s only a side discussion. The main discussion on this question is one of practicality. How is it practical to expect that people control themselves, rather than relying on the government to control them?

The problem is that this question presumes some sort of government that is not, itself, made up of people – subject to the same whims, faults, limitations and errors as any others. The only really just government would be a government ruled by one truly perfect human being . . . and no such thing exists, or ever can.

This being the case, any government at all is a concession . . . a surrender of control over our own choices. But it is a necessary concession if we are to live in relationship with one another. Anarchy – the absence of any government – simply pits everyone against each other in a harsh, primal struggle for survival.

What, then, should we look for in our government on a practical level? I believe that perhaps the most harmful force in our current national character has been the drive toward relativism . . . the belief that everything is subjective, and that nothing is universal.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that at least 99% of all the standards anybody holds – including, probably, some of my own – are misguided and wrong. But 99% is not the same as 100%. In order for a society to function . . . indeed, in order for there to be any concept at all of justice, good, or right . . . something must be universally true. Otherwise, these words are just so many letters combined in an aesthetically pleasing order.

So yes . . . I believe most of what each and every one of us believes to be true is, in fact, probably wrong, either by virtue of being incomplete or being off target. On a practical level, this means that we should not endeavor to impose our beliefs, behavioral systems or tastes on each other. The laws of this country should strive to respect the choices each of us make for ourselves. The only laws I would like to see . . . the only ones I believe to be truly “just” . . . are those which prevent us from imposing our will on each other . . . those which prevent us from *eliminating* one another’s choices.

Therefor, my answer is that, in our democracy, we should strive to eliminate as many laws, bureaucracies, and systems of control as possible. And where it is not possible, we should maximize the ability of those under the laws to make choices within them. If there must be politicians, then let us strive to elect politicians who believe this, rather than those who are simply out for more control. And where there are none who truly believe it, let us elect those who at least find it in their best interest to pretend that they do.

Carla’s final question is a bit different. Her first question had one foot still firmly in the theoretical world, and one in the practical. Her second question moved fully to the practical realm, but dealt with how to apply my worldview politically to our existing nation-state.

Her third question starts from scratch, and asks how a libertarian would set up a system of government for 300 million people such as those living in this country.

I cannot answer for all libertarians, but I will answer for myself, and my answer will be similar to the one I gave for the last question . . . that is . . . it’s the wrong question. How would I set up a government for 300 million people? I wouldn’t.

This may seem like a cop-out, but really it is not. A government is not something I believe can be legitimately “set up” for people. In order to be legitimate, they must set it up themselves – whether by electing representatives, choosing the strongest warrior to be their king, selecting the best hunter to be their tribal chief, or simply allowing citizens to participate in a direct democracy.

To be honest, I think it would be easier to establish an ideal government from scratch than it would be to try to turn our country, with its history, its many diverse cultures, its baggage and its existing power structures into that ideal government. While I don’t subscribe to the view that “we can’t get there from here,” I do think it’d be one hell of a trip to do so.

The problem with this whole discussion is the fact that it focuses too much on government. This is, I think, one of the key problems with small “L” liberalism . . . that is, the left wing political viewpoint in America today. Like Carla did in asking these questions, liberalism focuses on government for everything. See a problem? What can the government do to fix it? Have a good idea? Let’s pass a law and have the government put it into practice! See someone in need? Let’s have the government help them out.

Frankly, I just don’t see the government that way. A government is just a particular structure put in place by people who seek to protect themselves. But in doing so, they sacrifice complete control over their own choices, and once they have given the government a little of that control, it will always seek more.

That’s where the liberal comes in . . . the typical liberal trusts the government, trusts it enough to willingly hand over his or her own control to solve that problem, to make something of that good idea, or to help that person in need. The typical liberal truly believes that the government is the entity best suited to make those decisions.

I think that’s giving the government . . . and the people who operate it . . . way too much credit.

What’s the alternative then? How do we build up a truly effective system of self-government?

The key is not government, but culture. Whether we’re talking about an existing system or one built from the ground up, the key is to start with the broadly-shared cultural belief that what we’re building is a good thing.

“But,” you say, “doesn’t that fall afoul of your earlier assertion that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on one another?”

Not at all. I don’t advocate forcing this belief on anybody . . . I simply believe that my ideal culture cannot exist in its absence. Besides, the belief I’m talking about is already broadly shared among much of western civilization. Those who believe in God call it the “golden rule,” but it is known by various secular aphorisms as well, “live and let live,” “let sleeping dogs lie,” “don’t tread on me.” These are all manifestations of the same thing. I prefer the Biblical expression because it is somehow fuller . . . deeper than the others. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is just another way of stating the foundational libertarian principle. It says, “I would like to be allowed the freedom to make my own choices, and because that is what I would like, I will give you that freedom as well.”

So the very first thing I would do to move this country – or ANY country – toward my ideal is work to instill within its people the importance of this vital principle. Right now, we have no central guiding principle . . . quite honestly, we have very little by way of cohesive culture at all, any more. Some of us operate on the hippocratic, “first, do no harm.” Others operate on the principle of “take what you can get.” Still others operate on various manufactured ethical codes that claim to have their basis in some form of religion or moral code, but few if any of these are truly internally consistent. Most are contradictory, and virtually all – when they find themselves with a hand on the strings of government – simply pull those strings in their direction, figuring that when an opposing viewpoint recaptures the reins it will do the same. All of these codes are, in some ways at odds . . . either with themselves, with each other, or both.

I’m afraid, Carla, that I probably haven’t really answered your questions. I suspect what you were looking for is an outline of how to restructure our government along libertarian lines, according to the worldview I outlined on this blog. The problem is, that is not - and was never - the point. The point is to outline how I, myself, try to live. Personally, I believe that if more people lived this way, we would all be happier, healthier, and more alive than we are now, but that’s not my choice – it’s theirs.

I can wish they would choose as I have, but truly I don’t have a lot of hope for that. So in the meantime I will simply keep developing my thinking, and keep sharing it with others. I may not be able to impact 300 million people, but perhaps I can impact one or two.

02 Feb 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Conclusion

There are a lot of words here. Some of them may seem controversial, irrelevant, even nonsensical. But this is what I believe . . . for now. I do not claim to be right – in fact, I assume that much of what I have written here is wrong. I do not claim to know the truth – or even that the truth is entirely knowable.  But because I do not know which of my beliefs are wrong, I will hold to them as long as they make sense. And because I cannot say which part of the truth I have managed to grasp, I will keep searching.

I’d like to say a few words about the sources that have informed my worldview. The two most influential, you may have noticed, are the Bible and Ayn Rand. Back in Part 1, I asked, and answered, the question: “How do I, as a believer in Christ, reconcile my worldview with that of a rabid athiest like Ayn Rand?”

I suppose that Rand herself would likely be horrified to find elements of her philosophy plugged into an overtly Biblical worldview. But I do not, as she did, believe that the two philosophies are so utterly incompatible. I believe Rand’s harsh reaction to Christianity largely stemmed from ways it has itself been twisted to belittle . . . to objectify. I’ve been exposed to plenty of Christians who believe humanity to be the scum of the earth, utterly worthless in our own right, incapable of anything that is objectively good, and valuable only inasmuch as we are redeemed by God. I used to believe that myself

Like Rand, though, now I reject that view – though my reasons for doing so are different. I believe that we are created in the image of God – intrinsically valuable (and valued by Him). And while I believe that He is the source of ultimate truth, I believe that His image in us is capable of finding bits and pieces of that truth, of tasting and recognizing “good,” even apart from His intervention . . . otherwise what do you do with masterful works of art that appeal to something deep within our souls . . . and are created by those who reject Him? How do you explain cultures never exposed to the concept of “Jesus Christ,” who nevertheless have pictures of Him buried in their own cultural and historical traditions?

I suspect that if I were able to sit down and have a conversation with Rand, the biggest point on which we would differ is this: she respected humanity so highly as to believe there is nothing greater. I respect humanity so highly as to believe there must be.

It is because of this respect . . . both for the Creator and for the pinnacle of His creation . . . that I can say of myself the same thing as the One whose image I bear. With Him, I can proclaim my “self” as an individual, conscious being who exists to make independent choices and to live in relationships with other “selves” . . . with you, in fact, if you want from your relationships the same thing I do from mine . . . if you long, like the Velveteen Rabbit in the children’s fairy tale, to slowly, painfully shed your button eyes and faux fur covering and become real.

I want that. I strive for it every day, and usually I fail. But I never stop trying. I hunger for real relationships with other people sharing their real selves. And when I find such a person – as I have found in my wife, for example – it just makes me hunger all the more.

Most importantly, I live in relationship with the “Self” of the One who formed me, lost me, sought me, found me, and loves me. What He took as the identification of His “Self,” I now take as the definition of mine, and when I use those three letters, I mean not only that I am an extant, distinct, and conscious being, but that I am living out the life I was created for, endeavoring every day to live that life to its fullest.

I Am.

Are you??

01 Feb 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Part 7

This is the seventh segment of “My Three-Letter Worldview.” Read Parts 1-6 Here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6. Tomorrow I’ll wrap this all up as best I can.

In parts 1-6, I talked a lot about what I believe about myself and my interactions with others.

This piece is intended to discuss what I believe about God.

To begin with – obviously, I believe that God exists.

What do I mean by that?

First, I believe that the previously discussed irreducible facts of my existence and identity imply the additional existence of a “source,” of some sort.

However, I do not believe that this fact necessitates the existence of a “God” . . . be it the God of the Bible or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Ask an atheist where it all comes from and he or she will turn it around on you and ask you where your God came from. Ask a physicist what happened before the “big bang,” and you will hear that it doesn’t matter, because it is not measurable and therefore outside the realm of science. It implies only a preexisting . . . something . . .

The simple fact is that there is no “proof” of the God I believe in. But my belief in Him does not require proof.

The book of Hebrews says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is as good a definition as any. Faith then, is what gives rise to hope . . . it is what drives me to believe things I cannot prove by empirical, tangible means.

It is what draws me to God.

Many people throughout history have attempted to “prove” God . . . to convince skeptics of His existence or His merit by logic alone. But these “proofs” are always unsatisfying. Pascal’s wager, for example, posits that it is better to believe in God than not, because the consequences of a mistaken disbelief are incalculably bad, while the consequences of a mistaken belief are nil.

This and all such logical arguments fail to take one thing into account. Mere belief in the existence of God is not what He asks of us.

“But wait a second,” you protest, “Acts 16:31 records Paul the Apostle saying exactly what is required for salvation: ‘believe . . . and you shall be saved.’”

Yes, it does, but the ellipses in the above sentence leave out its most important part – indeed, the most important piece of all of human history. They exclude the one unique factor that sets Christianity apart from all other world religions: Jesus Christ.

He is not unique as a mix of the human and the divine. Many religions have had their “god-men.” He is not unique as a sacrificial victim, which is also characteristic of many religions throughout history. He is not even unique in His victory over death.

He is not unique in how, when, or where he lived. His uniqueness is in why He lived.

non-Christian sects – and even some self-described Christian ones – equate Christ’s life to the lives of Moses, Mohammed, Siddhartha Gautama, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. They call him a great teacher and prophet.

And that is indeed what he was. But it is not what He is. Or more accurately, it is a piece of His existence, but only a piece.

We Christians have many petty debates about various divergences in what we believe, but I think the most petty – and most unnecessary – is the debate over predestination versus free will. I myself used to take gleeful part in these debates. But in doing so, I was off on what Emergent Theologian Brian McLaren calls and “adventure in missing the point.”

This is where my beliefs and the beliefs of the hard and fast physicist to whom I alluded earlier intertwine. I believe our human observations and conceptualizations are limited to the bounds of what science has come to call the “space-time continuum.” While I believe we are not mere physical beings, I believe our limited minds – bound within space and time themselves – can only conceive of things – even spiritual things – in physical terms. We cannot truly imagine “spirit” . . . we can only imagine a physical *picture* of what we think “spirit” looks like.

God, I believe, is not bound by such restraints. He exists outside of time and space. I don’t pretend to know how, or why, or that it’s even possible to understand, but I do not believe in a God who is constrained by physical limitations of any sort, the way I am – the way we all are.

So for this God, so many of the supposedly “big” questions of Christianity become meaningless. the question over predestination vs. free will, the question of how many literal “days” it took to create the universe, the question of when exactly Christ took on divine . . . even the question of the nature of the trinity.

Is God divided into three parts or one? From outside of space, the concept of “parts” becomes meaningless, and the answer is: Neither

Did Christ become divine before or after His death? From outside of time, the concept of “when” becomes meaningless, and the answer is: He just IS.

Did God create the earth in seven literal days? From outside of time, the concept of “days” becomes meaningless, and the answer is: Who cares?

Did God predetermine who would join in relationship with him, or do we have the free choice to make that decision ourselves? From outside of time, the concept of “pre” becomes meaningless, and the answer is both!

Here’s why this last question, the one that misses the point so badly, is such a heartbreaking one . . . it is so close to the heart of the matter, yet misses it entirely.

The “heart of the matter” is this. God invites us to join in relationship with Him! And instead of marvelling at His invitation, we bicker over when it was issued.

Think about that. God – by whatever name you give him or concept you use to picture him – reaches from beyond the universe . . . beyond all bounds of what we can see or hear or “prove,” or even imagine . . . and invites us into relationship. As I defined relationship in Part 2 of this series, that means he literally invites my “self” to touch His “Self.” How cool is that??

There’s just one problem with it. I can’t do it.

I believe that in Eden, when humanity made the choice to reject their relationship with God, we placed the impenetrable barrier of space-time between us and Him. Ever since then, we have been living within those restrictions, and God has been reaching in to us, grieving for the relationship we broke and working toward its restoration, while we by our own poor choices have been adding onto that barrier . . . making it even thicker . . . distancing ourselves even further with each lie we live, each substitute we settle for, each relationship we fake.

One can see the imprint of His efforts throughout Scripture to restore the lost relationship. One can picture him taking long walks with Enoch, engaging in careful, detailed discussions with Noah, sitting down to a meal with Abraham, sparring physically with Jacob, and verbally with Moses, weeping with David, sighing in frustration with Jeremiah, comforting Esther as she fears for her life. With each overture he coaxes us closer, prompts us to eye the barrier we have created to see if there might somehow be a way around it . . . a way back to relationship with Him.

Ultimately, all of it is preparing humanity for that point at which He would physically enter space-time as one of us. He doesn’t sever the barrier we created – not yet. But He sets in motion the process by which it will be severed. Our choices have left us tainted – sick – incapable of breaching the barrier on our own to regain relationship with Him. So instead He comes Himself as a man – and not any man, but one who is not afflicted as we are by the choices we have made. He takes our sickness on Himself, working out the cure for our poor choices – our sin – in his own body, and ultimately curing it . . . creating a conduit through the barrier, through which we can reach for something more. He Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He is the Way – the conduit through which we reach for restored relationship. He is the Truth – the only means we have of breaching the otherwise-impenetrable barrier we created by choice. He is the Life – the cure to what ails us . . . the antidote to a lifetime, to several lifetimes, of poor choices: of settling for less than we deserve, less than we need . . . less than we truly want. He invites us once again into a real relationship – the fulfillment of all of His . . . and all of our own . . . “shadow” relationships.

And once again, just as He did in the beginning, because He still values us too much to force us into anything . . . because we are still the same creatures he designed to make conscious choices . . . He gives us a choice in this as well. Some choose to reestablish the relationship severed by our ancestors so long ago – to accept the antidote he offers. Tragically, most choose once again to reject it.

I’ve gone on a long time, for a worldview that unpacks itself from a mere three letters. In my next and final segment, I will wrap all of this up as best I can.

31 Jan 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Part 6

This is the sixth installment of “My Three Letter Worldview.” You can read the first five parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

In these posts, I’ve talked a great deal about “rights.”

I’ve talked far less about “wrongs.” This will be the subject of this installment.

Thus far I’ve argued that, as individuals, we have the absolute, inborn right to do as we choose so long as we do not, in exercising that right, infringe on the rights of another.

You might think that, by so arguing, I’m advocating a world in which each person gets to set their own standards, live by their own rules and ultimately live free of any constraints at all. To this I have two responses.

First, I haven’t really said that at all. I’ve already argued that we have the right to live free of external restraints, provided we are willing to suffer the consequences of doing so. I have the absolute freedom to drive down the highway at 100 miles an hour, so long as I’m willing to accept the speeding ticket and reckless driving charge that would likely result from my doing so. I have the absolute freedom not to pay my taxes . . . so long as I’m willing to spend a great deal of time alone in a dark room with bars on the door.

Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to.

Let me explain what I mean.

I mentioned earlier that I believe we are created to (a) live in real relationships and (b) make choices about how we interact with our world. But I believe that most of the time, we settle for fairly superficial shadows of the two purposes for which I think we were created. Too often, rather than living in real relationships . . . relationships where we actually put our selves out there to interact with the selves of others, we put on a facade, and blithely wander around interacting with other facades. We ask “how are you doing?” or “how’s it going?” or “how’s life?” all the while hoping against hope that what we don’t get is a real answer. We don’t want to hear, “life sucks right now. I’m upside down in my mortgage, I’ve been sick, and my wife and I aren’t getting along so well at the moment.” We want to hear “I’m fine.” Then we want to go on about our lives. That’s not a relationship. That’s the exact opposite . . . it’s the avoidance of relationship.

You see this even in many marriages. David Schnarch, psychologist, therapist, and author of Passionate Marriage, says that when he sits down in a restaurant he can always look around the room and tell which couples are married, and which ones aren’t. How’s that? Because the married ones are the ones not talking with one another. Schnarch explains that many married couples have spent so much time with each other that they have realized which are the “taboo” topics . . . which subjects, when brought up, so irk the other partner that it’s just not worth it to bring them up. After many years of marriage for a couple like this, there are more sensitive topics than there are safe ones. Again, this is not relationship. It is the lack of relationship.

And what about choices? Every day it seems like we are coming up with new ways to not make choices. Even the newest “hot” search engine on the Internet, Microsoft’s “Bing” markets itself as a “decision engine.” Everywhere we look is another expert with another point of view assuring us that all we have to do is take this advice, read that book, make three easy payments of $19.99 . . . and we will be told what the “right” choice is.

If you’ve read much on this blog, you know I don’t trust “experts” much. This is why. Your typical expert doesn’t want to be told that he or she might be wrong . . . might not have all the information . . . or might just flat out not know what they’re talking about. They don’t want you to question . . .they just want you to do as you’re told. And to pay them for the privilege of doing it.

I’d rather make my own choices, thank you very much.

Relationships and choices. These are two things that set us apart as humans. Animals have functional relationships . . . their “marriages” are for the sake of procreation . . . their “friendships” for the sake of survival. They don’t have the ability to lock minds with another individual and realize that this . . . this is someone with whom I can relate. Here is someone who understands.

That ability is uniquely human.

So is the ability to make choices. In the animal kingdom, choice is driven by survivalism . . . compelled by instinct. In reality, it is hardly choice at all. We humans are different . . . ever since Eden we have been unique in our ability to make choices . . .

. . . unique in our ability to screw things up.

Yes, to err is human. It is the essence of what makes us human. We can strive to make wise choices, but it is our ability to make unwise choices that makes us so special. How counterintuitive is that??

What, though, does this have to do with the concepts of “right” and “wrong”? What does it have to do with the fact that I choose not to live free of any restraints or “morals”?

Simply that the choice of which standards I follow is guided by my desire to live . . . to live fully from what it is that makes me human. To live deeply in relationships and to make every effort to make each and every choice consciously, aware of the ramifications and accepting of the consequences.

Therefore, I choose, among other things:

  • To abstain from drugs – both illegal and (as much as I can) legal
  • To abstain from eating certain foods
  • To forego most vaccinations and stay away from antibiotics as much as possible
  • To abstain from sexual promiscuity – indeed, from all sexual activity outside my marriage
  • To seek a relationship with God apart from an institutional, organized church or denomination

These are just a few examples of my personal standards of external behavior. I do not demand that you follow them – or even necessarily think that you should. They are what is necessary for me to live a life of genuine, committed relationships and genuine, informed choices.

In the first example, I choose to abstain from drugs because I believe that for me they would function as a shield to block out the realities of life . . . to avoid the difficulties and struggles – the choices – of a life lived fully conscious . . . and fully lived.

In the second example, I have read enough to believe that my body is adversely affected by certain foods to the extent that its functionality is impaired. I believe many people simply go on and endure this impaired functionality because they believe it’s worth it in order to eat certain things, or simply because they don’t think about it at all. That is their choice, and I used to do the same. Now I make a different choice.

In the third example, While I don’t necessarily buy into all the hype around vaccines, I think there is enough “reasonable doubt” in many cases to justify a cost/benefit analysis that comes down in favor of going without. I believe that in most cases the risks of side effects outweigh the risks of the diseases in question. As far as the antibiotics, I believe many of the health issues we face today as a culture addicted to pills for everything can be traced back to chemical imbalances in the body created by excessive exposure to antibiotics. I choose not to expose myself any more than I absolutely have to.

In the fourth example, I choose a genuine, deep relationship with my wife. There is nobody who understands me more or loves me more. To seek sexual satisfaction anywhere else would be to not only damage that relationship, but to settle for something far less satisfying.

In the final example, I choose, again, a genuine, deep relationship with my God. For most of my life, I lived with a shadow relationship with a theoretical God. I learned all the verses, mouthed all the lines and modeled all the behaviors . . . but I didn’t really know God. Now I find that every time I sit through a church service I am drawn back into that old life . . . that shadow existence based on external pressures and rules, rather than on the reality of who I am, and who He is.

And ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to: internal vs. external motivations. That’s what I meant at the start of this post when I said that I the reason I don’t live a life free of any restraints is because I don’t want to . . . I believe external motivations are those used by people who wish to control us. I believe what God looks for . . . and what real “good” looks like . . . is internally motivated.

This might sound sacreligious . . . but I genuinely do not believe that the reason sin is wrong is “because the Bible says so.” I believe that the Bible says so because it’s wrong, and I believe it’s wrong because it’s living a lie. It’s settling for less life than I am intended to live.”

And that, I believe, is the ultimate wrong. Maybe even the only real wrong.

I know, I know, there I go sounding sacreligious again. Am I saying that sin isn’t a problem? That there’s far less wrong with the world than we generally think?

Not at all. I’m saying that I believe each of the world’s ills can be traced to the problem of less-lived lives. I think what we know as “sin” is really a matter of “settling” . . . settling for something less than we really want – something less than we really need in order to satisfy human nature’s inherent lust for life.

That’s why internal motivation is so important. External motivation can prompt us to model behaviors, but Matthew 5 is pretty clear that what God really cares about are our internal motivations. Have you killed anyone lately? No? How about calling them names? . . . yeah, well . . . that’s just as bad.

What about loving people . . . have you been kind and generous to your friends? Yes? well good! . . . what about your enemies??

What’s my point? Simply this. I believe that “sin,” to God, has far less to do with what I do, than why I do it! I believe, for example, that He doesn’t want me murdering people, stealing their stuff or screwing around with them, because each of these behaviors is an objectification of sorts. To murder someone is to say they are less of a person than I am . . . less deserving of their basic right to exist. Stealing their stuff says essentially the same thing about their other rights – the right to their time, labor and the fruits thereof. Sexual promiscuity objectifies not only the person with whom I’m engaging in illicit activity, but also the person to whom I have promised myself. It says to the one: “I don’t want a real relationship with you. You are simply an object to be used to slake my sexual desires.” It says to the other, “I claim that I want a relationship with you, but in reality all I want is a prop for family portraits and dinners out with friends. I don’t really want you.”

As I said earlier . . . sin isn’t wrong because Scripture says so . . . Scripture says so because it’s wrong.

We engage in this sort of objectification – both of others and of ourselves – on a daily basis. We do this whenever we do physical or emotional harm to another person . . . or when we settle for less than we truly desire and stop trying to attain it. We live a life that settles for shadow relationships . . . shadow choices . . . falsehoods modeled after something real that we have ceased to hope for . . . to long for . . . to even dream is possible.

I am unwilling to settle for that. I am unsatisfied with a shadow existence. I crave something more . . . something deeper.

And I believe God does, too.

My next segment will delve deeper into this assertion, and will answer what I consider to be the most important question of any worldview: What do I believe about God?

30 Jan 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Part 5

This is the fifth part of my series, “My Three Letter Worldview.” You can read the first four parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The last two portions of this series dealt with “rights” . . . defining them and working through how I believe they function. Part 4 closed with the question of whether or not a government, which is charged with the responsibility of protecting us from violations of our rights, may legitimately protect us from ourselves.

I believe the answer is “no,” for two reasons. First and most simply, I do not believe it is possible for me to violate my own rights. They are mine and I may exercise them (or not) however I choose. Second, I do not believe any government has the capacity of properly judging what is, or is not, a “good decision.” Certainly, I have made what I consider to be bad decisions in my life . . . but they are decisions I myself have judged to be bad ones. I do not believe any other person or organization has the right to make that determination but me.

This might seem like a shocking assertion to make. How can I possibly be asserting that each of us is, in ourselves, the best judge of what makes a good or bad decision?

Well, in today’s world, the honest answer is that we can’t, because we have – all of us – stunted our decision-making capacity.

This brings us to the flip side of rights: responsibilities. In this day and age, everybody wants to spend the entire conversation talking about their “rights” . . . nobody wants to talk about their responsibilities.

We made certain to begin our discussion of “rights” by defining what it was we were talking about, so let’s do the same with “responsibilities.” We defined rights as a method by which we make the choices available to us. I believe responsibilities are another such tool. If rights are the tools we use to maintain our “selves” against the encroachments of others, then responsibilities are the tools we use to avoid encroachments of our own.

Thus, my right to free speech carries the responsibility of allowing others to speak freely as well, even when I disagree with what they say. My right to freedom of religion carries with it the responsibility to respect the same right of others to believe as they choose – even if it conflicts with my own beliefs. My right to freedom of association carries with it the responsibility of allowing others to associate freely – of not being offended if they shun me.

Perhaps most importantly, my right to act as I choose carries with it responsibility for the consequences that stem from those actions.

That, ultimately, is why the government has no business protecting me from myself. I have made my choice, and even if it’s a bad one it is still my choice. Should that choice do harm to another, then it is the government’s legitimate role to step in and protect them from the consequences of my bad choices. But as long as those consequences affect only myself, I have no claim on the assistance of any other, unless they should freely choose to give it either voluntarily or in return for just compensation.

But instead of fostering a culture of responsibility, we have built a culture of dependency. Instead of a society that respects each of us as individuals, we have built a society that only thinks in terms of groups: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, liberals, conservatives, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s identity politics meets class warfare meets groupthink. As long as we categorize ourselves as part of a “group,” then we don’t have to face the responsibility for our choices as individuals . . . If I have a load of debt, it’s not because I’ve chosen how and where to spend my money . . . it’s because we’re in a recession that happens to be hitting my country . . . my region . . . my state . . . my city . . . my neighborhood . . . my “group.”

Of course, there are always going to be factors beyond our control. I’m not one of those that believes God struck Haiti, or New Orleans, because of some “deal with the devil.” Those who were caught in those tragic disasters are not to blame.

But they are still responsible for the choices they make in reaction to the tragedy that struck them. We are all responsible for the choices we make, even if we make those choices in response to an event over which we have no control. When I fell in love for the first time and she rejected me, I had no control over her response, but I was responsible for the way I let it affect my relationships for the next several years.

But we don’t want this responsibility . . . we would rather have someone to blame. And so we wrap our “little” violations of rights inside of one another to make them seem more palatable. We “must” take a little bit of freedom here because we have made absolutely certain that exercising that by exercising that freedom we will affect one another in ways that should never have existed.

The so-called “war on drugs” is a perfect example: We “must” control access to these substances because they are “tearing apart the fabric of our society” . . . but the only reason they are tearing apart the fabric of society . . . the only reason their presence is accompanied by crime and social upheaval . . . is because they are illegal in the first place. We have only to look at the example of prohibition to prove this. When alcohol was illegal, people found a way to indulge themselves anyway . . . but in doing so they perpetrated a crime wave like this country had never seen before. But rather than blaming the government that felt it must control people, we blamed only the immediate perpetrators. And we have done the same with the war on drugs . . . we blame the gangs, the meth labs, the crack houses . . . rather than the government that makes them all necessary in order for people to make the choices they end up making anyway.

Why? Because we can’t have people taking responsibility for their own choices . . . then they’d be out of our control!

Which is, ultimately, what the government - any government - is, by definition, all about.

Does that mean I advocate unsafe, unhealthy behaviors as a way of life? Actually, no. In my next segment, I’ll explain why.

29 Jan 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Part 4

This is the fourth part of my series on my “Three letter worldview.” In Part 1, I explained that those three letters are the ones by which God identified Himself to Moses in the opening chapters of Exodus, “I am.” Part 2 expanded on the basic concepts of existence and identity by explaining how humans use relationships to interact, and by asserting that God created us to exercise freedom. Part 3 introduced my view on the concept of rights.

In part 4, I’d like to expand on rights a bit more by discussing how those rights interact with the rights of others.

I wrote in part three that “all the rights in the universe boil down to one. Ultimately, there is a single basic right. The right to exist!”

I believe each of us has that right from the moment of our formation as an individual, human entity. I also believe that no other person can take these rights away from us, and that the only legitimate justification for taking the life – the physical existence – of another, is to protect the life – the existence – of another who is in imminent danger. For this reason, I am pro-life, with the single exception that I believe an abortion is justified if there is an imminent threat to the life of the mother. Also for this reason, I am against the death penalty. There is an argument that says the death penalty acts as a deterrent by preventing repeat offenses . . . but this makes two assumptions. First, it assumes the future guilt on the part of the one being executed . . . assumes that he or she will be a repeat offender. Second, it assumes the view of rights that I explicitly rejected in my last post – that a government . . . any government . . . has the legitimate function of deciding when and where the ultimate right of existence can and should be taken away.

If, then, governments do not grant us rights, what exactly is their function? I believe that governments are, by definition, a collection of individuals voluntarily assembled for the purpose of protecting one another’s rights. Those governments who act otherwise – who go beyond the function of protecting individuals from one another into the realm of dictating the choices those individuals must or should make with regard to the exercise of their own rights – have violated their purpose and strayed into the realm of illegitimacy.

And yes, I do believe that our government . . . indeed, every government now existent on this earth . . . has made that leap. It is for this reason that I really don’t believe there is one form of government that is “more legitimate” than another form. A dictator can be more benevolent than a parliament, and a democracy more tyrannical than a king . . . just ask Socrates.

No, the problem with governments is not in their form, but in their function. Our government – indeed, most if not all governments – have developed this notion that they are the ones who grant us rights. Those rights they “choose” to give us, we are free to exercise, within their discretion of course. But should we protest at the lack of those rights they choose to withhold, we are being unreasonable at best, and dangerous at worst.

One might think by this line of logic that I am advocating rebellion against oppressive and illegitimate governments, but in fact I am not . . . because it is not the government’s fault. It is mine. And yours.

You see, in the same way I believe governments do not give us rights, I do not truly believe they take them either. In fact, I do not believe that rights are something that can be taken away from an individual who is operating at his or her full mental and physical capacity.

They cannot be taken, but they can be surrendered.

Ponder that sentence for a moment.

Nobody can take my rights away from me without my consent. How, then, are millions of people enslaved by tyrannical regimes at this very moment??

The answer is choice – the same choice that, as I mentioned in an earlier segment – guides all human interactions.

I live under a government that sometimes acts in ways I believe to be illegitimate . . . because I choose to. I choose not to protest the unjust actions of my government because I believe it does a better job protecting my rights than any of the alternatives, and because – quite frankly – I like it here. It’s not perfect, but on balance I like it.

But this notion of choosing to surrender our rights places the nature of our government – of any government – in a new light, doesn’t it? In fact, I believe that even in forming a government, some rights are voluntarily surrendered. Absent any government, for example, the decisions that affect me are mine, and mine alone. When I live under a government, even a democratic republic like the United States, I surrender a portion of that decision-making power. Even in a direct democracy, the decisions are not left to each individual alone, but are made by the group as a whole.

As such, no government is going to make decisions that satisfy 100% of their citizenry, 100% of the time. Furthermore, because governments can only deal in “protecting” us against “violations” of our rights, they will be constantly seeking to expand the scope of those violations, in order to aggregate more and more power to themselves. It is simply the way they work, to the point where they will – and do – seek to protect us even from ourselves.

But why is this not a legitimate concern on the part of a government? They are in the business of protecting, are they not? So why should they not protect me from the consequences of my own poor decisions?

This will be the subject of Part 5.

28 Jan 2010 My Three-letter Worldview: Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the irreducible facts of existence and identity, how God is the ultimate picture of these concepts, and how we are shaped in that image.

In Part 2, I went on to discuss the role of relationship and the value I believe God places in human freedom.

In this section, I’d like to talk about the tools we use to govern those choices – what we call “rights.”

In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the United States claimed that rights are “endowed by our Creator.” While I believe this to be true, I do not believe my interpretation of how rights work to be dependent on a theistic worldview. Nor do I believe that this salient quote from our founding document tells the whole story. I believe rights are given to me by God . . . but what are they??

This has been the subject of many a debate over the years since the concept of “rights” was first envisioned. Prior to the Declaration, it was assumed that rights were bestowed by virtue of birth based on nationality and class – the “rights of the nobility” or the “rights of Englishmen” or the “Rights of Roman Citizens.” The Declaration was both an extension of, and a break from, that viewpoint. It broke from the view that governments can have a say over what your rights are, or are not. At the same time, it held to the belief that rights are innate – they are something we are not given, they are something we are born with.

Their vision of rights was not universal – minorities and women were excluded, but this was a factor of the prejudices of their time, rather than an inconsistency in their beliefs. Indeed, the worldview they espoused were later used to extend to those same excluded groups the rights they were initially denied.

So that’s where our notion of rights came from, but the question still remains – what are they??

Here is what I believe: I agree with our founders that rights are something we are born with, not given. I believe rights are the means by which we make the choices we have available to us. I believe, in fact, that they are an extension of the two axioms of existence and identity. That is, because I exist, and because I exist as a unique, independent individual capable of cognizant choice, the ultimate arbiter of what I do with that existence is . . . me. This is what I meant in my last segment that God values humans’ ability to make choices for ourselves. Has He expressed a desire for us to choose certain things? Yes, but ultimately, He has given us the freedom not to do so.

So here I am, an extant individual . . . existence and identity . . . in a world full of extant individuals. As such, I believe all the rights in the universe boil down to one. Ultimately, there is a single, basic right. The right to exist!

From my previous blog posts, you can easily tell, then, what I think that right entails. It is my right to live as a individual, free to engage in relationships with other individuals as I see fit, and to make the choices I see fit to make. From this basic right flow corrollary rights. I have the “right” to choose how I relate to that world – how I act, how I think, what I say, who I associate with, and how I spend my time. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom from illegal searches and seizures, freedom to defend myself against attacks . . . all of these extend from that one basic right to exist.

That is not to say that I have the “right” to do whatever I choose, if that choice infringes on the rights of another to do as they choose. For if relationships are the points at which our “selves” touch one another, and if choices are the ways in which we interact, then rights are the boundaries between those independent selves. I have the unlimited right to do whatever I choose to do with my body, my abilities to think and communicate, and my time . . . right up until that choice infringes on your right to do whatever you choose to do with yours. As the cliche goes, my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.

This concept of rights is more inclusive than some . . . for example, it negates the old adage about “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” because it places the responsibility on the hearer to be aware of his or her surroundings. If each person in that theater bears the responsibility of both making informed choices – rather than running around in a panic – and respecting the rights of others, then I have the freedom to shout away all I choose.

But this concept of rights is also less inclusive than some. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. I would submit that he was half right . . . or more precisely, that only half of these are “rights.” Freedom of Speech and Religion are, indeed, a result of simply respecting one another as individuals. However, the so-called “freedoms” from want and fear are really the opposite – they are not freedoms, but demands. “Save me from shortage!” . . . “Save me from fear” . . . “Save me!” The difference is this: I believe that my rights make no demands on another except to do nothing. My freedom of speech does not demand that another stay silent . . . only that they not interfere with my speaking. My freedom of religion does not demand that another believe what I do . . . only that they not attempt to control what I believe. My freedom of association does not demand that another associate with me . . . only that they not attempt to stop me from associating with whomever I choose.

Contrast that to the vision of “rights” espoused by FDR. Freedom from want, freedom from fear. These so-called “freedoms” are not freedoms at all. The demands they make are on me . . . on you . . . on us as a society . . .  to step in – to interfere.

I’ll say more about rights in my next post.