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Who Really Believes in Hell? (Not Who You Would Think)

July 7, 2014

People are concerned enough about their own or others’ destiny after death that they will study and discuss it at length.  This is a recurring topic on many Christian or other blogs (including this one).

Today it has popped up on the popular Christian (and relatively Evangelical, but not rigidly so) blog called Jesus Creed, by Scot McKnight.  Kind of an interesting angle, in that it involves the major Evangelical figure, widely respected, the late John R. Stott (British).  Here was my contribution to the discussion there, which I think is an important “stand-alone” point, regardless whether you go to McKnight’s post or not:

I was thoroughly Evangelical, including on eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement from high school, through Biola Univ., Talbot Sch. of Theol., Christian Res. Inst. (with Walter Martin) and beyond, to well over age 40.  But ongoing, deeper study changed that eventually.

With a different view of the authority of Scripture now, I can see more clearly how people “operate” in terms of difficult doctrines and general belief systems.  Seems pretty clear to me that, regardless of which view is truly “biblical”, the vast majority of even conservative Evangelicals do not actually believe in either annihilation OR eternal punishment, whatever their stated belief.

The evidence? That very few people actually ACT like they do.  That is, they do not witness continually (or probably much at all), even to friends or family who “don’t know the Lord”, let alone all the other “lost” people they encounter daily.  Some may pray more consistently but even they usually won’t pursue every direct means of getting the Gospel across to people, as would be expected for every person transformed and infused by the love of God who ALSO believes most other people around them are bound either for eternal suffering or extinction.

I have some guesses but am not quite sure why we allow ourselves to be so self-deluded (as I once was also) as to really believing in hell or annihilationism.  So we do all these intellectual “explorations” or study to supposedly come to the “right” or biblical view… all the time disbelieving, really (and thankfully, as I see it) in the whole hell concept.

On this Independence Day, Is the Old Civil Religion Dead?

July 4, 2014

I’m just inside this part of July 4th, trying to stay cool! And not wanting to exert my brain a lot either, to write an in-depth article…. SO… some food for thought to go along with all the other food this week-end.

First, in speaking of “civil religion”, is this even a term familiar to you?

If not, the brief article in Wikipedia will get you up to speed on the basics, quickly.  There is a lot to explore about and within the subject beyond this, of course… entire books, courses, etc.  For here, just the general concept: Civil religion involves religious or quasi-religious ideas, symbols, etc. that are shared by a large portion of a nation (or similar societal structure) across specifically religious lines — the use of “God language” by politicians, prayers or biblical quotes at meetings or commemorations, religious placards (such as the Ten Commandments), or structures such as crosses at public places, etc.

So what is becoming of civil religion, do you think, as our national consciousness seems increasingly polarized? At the least, our political processes are increasingly polarized.  (I’ve heard a few researchers or commentators recently emphasizing that it is our political processes that is much more polarized than our citizenry, and I consider this likely to be true.)

Is there even a proper place for “civil” religion in things to do with government, under the US Constitution? Or should the “no establishment” clause rule out even this more common-ground and “generic” kind of religious speech or symbolism?  

Just my opinion on this: It is and always will be impossible to draw clear lines between what is “religious” and what is “secular”, so until something becomes clearly excessive–at least to me(!)–I don’t begrudge people some public symbolism, some mixing of God-talk into the political process….

On the other hand, I do believe many traditional Christians are in freak-out mode with the rapidity of change in a number of areas, and this is prompting outcries, lawsuits, etc., that are indeed “excessive” or ill-founded.  They are often merely reactionary when there is little or no true threat–for example to “religious liberty” or freedom of speech.

What gets you alarmed, on either “side” (or anywhere) on these issues? 

Isn’t Religion Mostly Social?

June 20, 2014

If you’ve been following even the general news through mainstream media, you’ve probably been hearing about ongoing and perhaps increasing religious tensions over same-sex marriage and related issues (ordination, welcoming gays, etc.).   

Most recently it’s been the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) which has taken a key vote in their General Assembly and strongly approved of performing same-sex weddings where such marriages are legal.  For one article on this here is that of the New York Times.  A more religious (and conservative) look at the PCUSA decision is here, in Christianity Today.

The controversy on this is spread throughout many denominations and has been a major contributor toward denominational splits, or many churches leaving for other denominations or full independence.

What should this be telling us? Are there issues “behind the issues”? (Undoubtedly there are.) 

There are probably a dozen or more good answers as to what such controversies are about.  But one thing I am convinced it shows is that religion is at least as much social as it is theological (or “biblical”).  

Isn’t it disturbing that so few people recognize this?

The debates, on this issue like many others, tend to outwardly center on people’s interpretation of the Bible.  Or just their inner sense of what “God’s definition of marriage” is.  I guess we like to think that God endorses whatever we happen to be used to…. whatever we think is important to social stability. (Or at least to keeping us comfortable.)

That’s not to say that no case is possible for gay marriage or any given trend supporting or undermining social stability.  But, although I follow this issue a fair amount, I’ve not seen Christians making such a case.  Yes, they discuss the few Bible passages that deal at least peripherally with it.  But no in-depth, developed case re. the social dynamics, issues, etc.  Again, that I have seen.  What have you seen, if anything?

And do you agree that much more of Christianity is an endorsement of status quo social mores than Christians want to admit? 

“Eccentricity: A Spirituality of Difference” – Book Review

June 19, 2014

Eccentricity is a recently-released short book with a unique angle on Christian spirituality.  No, it’s not about being eccentric in the way we typically use the word… not about appearing odd or being a bit on the crazy side.

But the book is about how we all are different, as God is different… particularly different from any of us!  We might say the author, David Auten’s, theme is our personal uniqueness.  And how that reflects the image of God in us.  And how that can (and should) lead to using our difference to make a difference.

 Eccentricity is the quality of difference.  Both the state of being different, as every person of every age is, as well as the positive difference (the positive influence) that one can have on one’s environment and the interconnectedness of the two.  Such eccentricity marks the very core of who you are…. [It] is the quality of deliberate difference whereby we intentionally embrace the difference that we are and that we can become in order to make a difference.

I don’t recall whether Auten uses this exact word in relation to recognizing our individual differences, but it’s fair to say he wants us to celebrate the difference we are… that we are different from even our close relatives and friends, in often significant ways.  This is a message that needs to be repeatedly heard by teens or young adults who are often troubled by being and especially by appearing different from their friends.  There is a psychological need to fit in, to be blended, as it were, at a certain stage of development.

The message of this book can help one move one through this a bit faster, learning some things at the same time.  Things beyond mere psycho-social adjustment.  More on this shortly.

One small concern (a mild criticism) about the book is that its prime audience might indeed be mid-to-late adolescents, but that its language and style is probably more suited to college graduates or the more intellectual of college students.  I do consider it quite readable, but probably somewhat a stretching exercise for the average reader, and youth especially.

This is mainly in terms of the vocabulary…. Although I have graduate degrees and study philosophy (some) and theology (a lot), I learned a few new terms myself!  As to being engaging, it was to me. Part of that, in my case, was its philosophical nature.  It gives us numerous quotes from prominent and not-so-prominent thinkers who present insights into our ways of being and acting, in terms of both psychology and theology.  Also included is a suitable and interesting amount of self-revelation.  Presumably with her permission, he also “tells” a bit on his wife and on their relationship – a warm and personal touch to the book. You can tell that Auten’s insights and encouragements grow out of his own experience, not just a summary of the many related books he obviously has read and which are listed in a substantial bibliography.  (The footnotes are sometimes of real interest as well, and should not be skipped.)

In Eccentricity you won’t find any denominational theology (Auten happens to be a United Church of Christ pastor); nor much that almost any kind of Christian would probably object to.  As a progressive, I can and do recommend it for other progressives, though I’m not 100% comfortable with a few statements.  I would imagine that most traditionalists would also recommend it, knowing the orthodox perspective and theology myself from long being on the inside of them earlier in life.

One of the main sections of the book deals with our individual “differentness” as a reflection of the image of God.  There is a good summary of various views on just what is the “image of God” in humanity.  With this, just who God is, how we may properly think of defining God. (As I do here, Auten avoids gender pronouns for God, skillfully, so that it seldom seems strained as it sometimes can be. I find his care especially fitting for a discussion on the image of God as carried by humans… not a male image, nor a female one).

Another long section is on the differences within ourselves – the various personas we take on.  Here he covers the major factors we often get “wrong” in terms of the wearing of masks.  It’s not, according to Auten, that all use of “masquerade” (one chapter title) is unhealthy.  Rather, it is inevitable and proper that we wear “masks”, with certain qualifications.  There are valid, important reasons to reveal or not reveal certain aspects of ourselves in various relationships.  His point is that there is not a single persona within us that we can call our “authentic self”.  Does the way we interact with a close friend represent our “authentic self” more than what we are like with our spouse? (Or vice-versa, as just one sample case?) He also points out the rather common-sense problems with the concept of “radical honesty”.  Not having read Brad Blanton’s popular book on the subject, I appreciated the summary and critique of it here.  We really can’t be 100% honest and “true to ourselves” while being fully loving or “true to others” at the same time…. We use discernment to make what are hopefully balanced, loving choices (with as little lying as possible).

A nice feature of the book is that each fairly short chapter ends with five questions and suggestions for “Reflection and Group Discussion”.  These are helpful both for individuals and for a class or discussion group which may be reading the book.  There indeed is a lot in it to provoke deeper thought.  Some personal journaling and/or group discussion is an excellent way to pound home, in practical ways, this kind of personally helpful material.

I highly recommend the book.  And I expect a group discussion of it would be quite stimulating and helpful for creating genuine and spiritual community among members.   

[A free review copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher, Cascade Books of Eugene, OR, which did not influence the way in which I reviewed the book.]

The Puzzlement of the Bible – Four Different Views

June 18, 2014

The other day I began participating in an interesting exchange on another blog about how to view and treat the Bible.  These days, there are a number of places, on the Internet and off, where intelligent and civil conversations on this are going on!  Yes! … If you’ve not seen this, I encourage some exploration.

So often we see unproductive arguments, even rancor or name-calling. But I see an increasing number of people who are doing some real thinking and productive talking about the Bible.  This particular blog and this post within it is one such place. It’s a good article and you can see the interaction of which I’ve been a part (here).

Here is most of my comment from there, presenting my understanding of 4 views – positions I regularly read about.  But seldom are they laid out in simple groupings like this and then briefly analyzed.  (Not that there aren’t other ways to group and contrast views):

Anyway, as to ways to view and treat our canonical Scripture, I will suggest a crude categorization into 4 “groups” (many won’t fit neatly into any of them, but for analysis sake):
1) Unique, “unchallengeable” authority via exclusive, “special” revelation
2) “Special” revelation in a qualified sense with other “revelations” considered similarly
3) Simply a condensation, compilation of developing human conceptions of truth, with a qualified human authority
4) No particular authority – entirely human and of “primitive” thinking now transcended (“secular humanism” or “pure naturalism” view)

Now, let’s apply this to the many discussions of biblical authority, historical accuracy and such, beyond just here on this thread: People from group 1 are prone to try to convince people or counter arguments from all 3 other groups, but their major enemy is group 4, because this is seen as the bottom of a “slippery slope” (either-or, dualistic thinking).

Conversely, group 4 folks (generally atheists) are mostly reacting to group 1… seeing them as the main threat to rationalism, evolutionary theory, etc. In my view, this entire interchange, both directions, is seriously boring and a waste of time…. Hardly anybody gets swayed by either groups’ arguments.

The important and interesting discussions take place mostly between positions 2 and 3, in my view, as they are here. I’ve already labeled group 4… Group 1 would be mainly historical orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. Group 2 is basically Process theology and related “Progressive Christian” views. Group 3 is “old line” liberalism and its carry-over for some contemporary liberal Christians.

After long being in group 1 and flirting quite a while with #3 without ever “buying” it because it is overly rationalistic, I’m pretty solidly in group 2 and presume I’ll remain there, with continuing nuances in my position over time. Process theology provides, to me, the best foundation, philosophically and in biblical terms, on which to base a serious but not literal or exclusive reading of Scripture. And this comes particularly into play with the Gospels and understanding the historical and theological Jesus… NOT a simple subject.

How do you look at the Bible? Can you place yourself within one of the four groups? (Not that you’d want to claim #1 or #4 “in front of” me, now that I’ve trashed them.) ;-) 

Where to Find Effective Career Direction Help?

June 13, 2014

For the last several months, I’ve been preparing a new and unique approach to helping youth and adults of any age (mainly young adults) find and develop a good career fit.  We might even say “the right” career.  Not to imply there is only one “right” one.

For Christians, this quickly brings up a question:

“What does this have to do with the Christian concept of a “calling”? Is that different? Can I pursue a career if I’m not clear if it is “God’s will”?

If you, as a reader here, are either Christian in some form, are uncertain if you want to be Christian or not, or are a general spiritual-but-not-religious type, keep reading and “follow” this blog, as it plus a related site I’m constructing and will link to, will be doing a number of things to provide practical help toward the best possible career for you.  That may include your educational or other preparation plans as well as the process of applying knowledge and qualifications you already have more effectively toward getting into a better job(s) or establishing a business.

(I will continue to also post on various issues of American Christianity, psychology of religion, biblical issues of particular importance, social issues related to religion, etc.)

If you are inclined toward ministry, especially in a church or in some form of “mission” (as in missionary or missional), you or others may consider it being “called” by God.  But is this situation necessarily any different than the draw toward a particular career area or specific role within a general area, such as a heart surgeon within the field of medicine? Are people also not perhaps “called” to a “secular”, even a business-oriented career?

My purpose right now is not to delve into this question deeply, but to suggest that there is a powerfully spiritual component in whatever any of us do to make a living…. Any of us, Christian or not!  On one hand, that spiritual element may lead us to find deep satisfaction and meaning in what we do.  On the other hand, it may result in our hating our job and having work seem meaningless.  Unfortunately, recent surveys have consistently shown that more people find themselves on the “meaningless” side, and unsatisfied, likely drained by their work.

There are a number of reasons for this, but a major one is that the person has not either determined what they are most interested in and skilled for, or they have but not been able to gain the necessary training or land a pertinent job.   This is frustrating, isn’t it (if you’ve been there as I have)? It may involve getting stuck in a job-and-life situation and not finding a way to move toward something better.  But even in this, there is usually a potential solution… something much better ahead that can be discovered… in taking some time to explore oneself more deeply, and to work on oneself as much as a direct job-search process, at least for a time.

I don’t mean just “inner exploration” or a spiritual discernment approach to finding “God’s will for my life”.  It will involve such inner work, framed and labeled in ways familiar through one’s influences of education, culture and church or religion.  (In terms of our subject, what a spiritual-but-not-religious person might call “following my passion” a traditional Christian might call “God’s will for my life” — basically, they are equivalent.)  In either case, it takes more than one’s own self-knowledge, important as that is, to plug meaningfully into the working world.

Here are a few of the other elements:

  • Perceptions and feedback from other people
  • A variety of test results that include physical, musical, artistic and other abilities not covered in typical aptitude tests
  • Personality profiling or “typing” and how it relates to careers and specific job roles
  • A detailed PLAN for setting and reaching appropriate goals in the exploration, education/training and get-into-a-job phases (which can and probably should overlap).

(Hint: Getting as efficiently as possible through all this is greatly aided by enlisting coaching help and following good resources.)  

I will fairly soon post further on these issues, including a discussion of some of the better resources I’ve discovered which can greatly help in the development of one’s career from exploration to finding or changing jobs.

In relation to all this, I’m wondering where you currently are if you are in a job of some kind.  Please respond to this one-item, super simple survey.  Thanks!

Comments are welcomed…. Your experiences may help others and will further enlighten me… and maybe I can respond with something helpful.   

Spiritual Health and Prohibition: Is Pot a Rerun of Alcohol?

June 7, 2014

As any observant American today knows, there are rapidly changing attitudes and changing laws around the use of marijuana.  The issue deserves deeper reflection and broader education than it is currently getting!  What, for example, can we learn from our history of managing alcohol use, including its legal prohibition for 13 years (1920-33) during “Prohibition”?  9087_wpm_lowres2

There is some controversy and a lot of ignorance about whether or not pot use, in any amount, is safe or can be of positive value.  (That is, aside from clear cases where medically necessary, as the best or only effective treatment for serious ailments.)

For this article, I’ll leave this debate aside and, for current purposes, we will assume that there is at least a rough parallel with alcohol: certainly a high potential for abuse and harm and relatively little harm, at least in the short term, from occasional careful use.  We’ll leave open the question of whether there is spiritual, emotional or any health benefit that may equal or outweigh the likely detriments of even moderate use or marijuana, particularly of intake by smoking it.

So then, can we look to the history of alcohol use for clues toward optimal ways to handle marijuana as a society? I’d say a qualified “Yes”! (And we should!) Certainly there are some parallels.  But there are also many differences so any comparisons must be made carefully.  Sticking mainly to the broad and common sense principles we can observe at play in attitudes and social/legal practices around alcohol use, we should be able to apply some insights.

We have a rapidly changing situation around pot use.  It requires active attention by us all… and right now.  It is important that we not just react out of opinion, off the top of our heads, about what we think is best for society.  If our preference is that people never use marijuana, or only for genuine medical need, the best fulfillment of that may not come through its prohibition.  The real need is to act (vote, propose regulations locally, educate, etc.) based on both facts about marijuana, its effects in different situations, and knowledge about social management. We must make some effort to learn about societal effects of alcohol and of various ways we’ve collectively sought to manage alcohol use.  It takes an historical look to do this.

This goes beyond Prohibition – to earlier as well as more recent periods.  This is what I’d call both a rational and a spiritual way to approach the problem….  It involves the search for truth core to the Bible and other religious texts, and a willingness to express judgment and compassion where each belongs – neither in unthinking rejection nor unqualified acceptance of all pot use and users.

I will refer you to an excellent article that covers how society and Christians in particular approached the social management of what had become, by the early 19th century, a major problem of massive (compared to today) consumption of alcohol, mainly as hard liquor.  I normally do not link to articles by Christianity Today, as is this one, in that my approach to Christian faith is often quite different than theirs.  However this article, found hereis an excellent, well-researched review of many factors involved in movements for total abstinence and other approaches, Christian and societal, to problems associated with alcohol consumption.  (Unfortunately, one has to be a subscriber to read most of the article online, as of this writing, as CT changed its availability just after I’d read it.  Or you can somehow find the print edition [probably June, 2014... not sure], often available in libraries.  It is well worth reading for anyone, regardless of their faith or lack thereof.)

One point of interest to note is that the author gives statistics of liquor consumption per person, nationwide, to show that Prohibition, on that limited measure, did work. However, the drop in overall consumption it achieved was maintained afterward and has actually continued to decline further to the present day, despite our serious problems with alcoholism, binge drinking, etc.  The author also points out that family and social benefits of either moderation or abstinence were obtained by other means, particularly as part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, begun almost 50 years before Prohibition.  Despite our cultural memory of the ax-wielding Carrie Nation, most of the movement was non-violent and focused on education as well as confrontation.

I don’t know that anyone is pushing the idea that pot consumption will actually drop if it is legalized in more states than the current two.  But I don’t think we can assume that it will necessarily rise significantly, either, or at least in the longer term. In other words, legislation against use of a substance is only one way for a society to put reasonable controls on the incidence of use.  And if people have allowed the existence of laws against pot use to excuse their lack of knowledge about present-day marijuana and how it can best be managed personally, in a family, or in society, maybe it won’t be bad to change them.

I’m not sure what else will get people more actively involved in educating themselves and others and developing effective ways to combat abuse of marijuana.  

What do YOU think? 


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