Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Heaven and Hell

I've been reading--and enjoying--Rob Bell's book, Love Wins. Here's my review of Bell. Before I blog about the latter, I thought I'd lay out my own ideas, which appeared in the final chapter of Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Science and Theology. Find out more here. (One other thing: Since this blog post has proven to be, by far, my most popular, I started a series of prequels here.)

At times, I've remarked that the gruesome portrayal of the damned in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" reveals a common human desire for our enemies’ demise. Maybe that is not the whole story. Perhaps we can find another thread. When I first typed “hell” into my laptop a moment ago, “heal” came out. Significant? Perhaps. I—like many of us—hope that God will heal Hitler, and Stalin, and the obnoxiously loud next-door neighbor, and the rabid atheist professor so that they all would turn to the Light. In a word, I hope for a life with no hell.
The Bible is much more interested in the new heavens and earth than in hell. So we ought to start there. It is the direction creation has pointed from the beginning. In fact, with the consummation of creation in mind, Genesis 1-2 receives new light. The Lord calls the world  “good,” not only in its initial form, but because God will remain faithful to creation and lead it continually toward perfection. Put in a different way, we fully understand the goodness of the first act of creation in light of the final act of new creation.
In the prophets, Isaiah stands out describing of the promise of the future and insights into creation. As Israel experienced increasing national trauma after its defeat and subsequent occupation by the hated and indomitable Babylonians in the sixth century BC, several prophets looked with hope to a coming day—the day of the promised victory by God’s Messiah. Several passages in the second part of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) link eschatological hope with the creation at the beginning. For example, Isaiah promises a new day of hope for the exiled people in which the natural order will return, subduing chaos as in Genesis 1, and restoring creation in some form to Eden:
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
      her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
      thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)
The final chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, provide a vision of another city, the City of God. In it ceaseless praise of God continues. Beautiful music--I'd like to think it's jazz--fills the heavenly city. And there is continual activity. We are not simply given rest in the new creation, but work without the curse of futility. (“By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,” Genesis 3:19). The final words offer two great promises: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (22:14). In this vision of cleansing and glory, we can take hold of the tree that Adam and Eve were forced to avoid after their disobedience (Genesis 3:24).  As a final act of triumph, Jesus will return to right our turbulent world, where God’s people face persecution:
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
      Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. (Revelation 22:20-21)
In 1994 the author (and now speaker) Betty Eadie sold boatloads of her book, Embraced by the Light, which describes her near-death experiences. Shortly after the book was published, I studied Eadie’s revelations with a church adult education class. We were struck by the specific and comforting details she described about heaven. In many ways, we simply wanted  to believe them. On the other hand, we know the difficulty of assessing the truth of these descriptions by Eadie or other similar authors. Broadly, they confirm some type of afterlife. Nevertheless, the interest in Eadie’s book reveals that Americans crave to know precisely what happens “on the other side.” Will I see my mother again? Will I understand why my son died of cancer at age nine? Will my dog be in heaven? The Bible offers both a more profound answer, but does not satisfy every speculation. The Bible concerns itself foremost with God’s justice to right a world distorted by sin and secondly with God’s salvation of a people. We are left without exhaustive detail of what happens to each of us individually. God will create a fully just world where the people of God will—for the first time—live fully human lives, thereby glorifying their Creator.
And so we arrive at the unpleasant doctrine of hell. I would be glad to forget it all about it. It is not only unpopular (“There you Christians go again with your judging!”), but personally repelling (Remember I want everyone to be healed). But unfortunately we hear it in Scripture and particularly on the lips of Jesus. It also makes sense of free will (what if some continue to resist God?) and God’s sovereignty (can a good God allow the unrepentant to exist forever?). Some biblical scholars—notably the prominent English evangelical, John Stott—have taken a fresh look and determined that hell cannot be everlasting, conscious punishment. His work demonstrates the need to re-look at this terrible doctrine. My hope is that we will be able to put aside any notions we have read in Dante’s poetry or seen on The Omen and listen patiently to the Scripture.
First of all, what does hell mean? Beginning with the key words is often a good approach. Sheol and Hades are transliterations of Hebrew and Greek words respectively that simply mean the abode of the dead, not necessarily a place of punishment. In the New Testament, hell translates a Greek term, geenna, which originated as a garbage dump in the valley of Hinnon, in which children ritually were later killed and dedicated to the god, Molech and dumped as refuse. This pit burned day and night. At the time of Christ, it had became a symbol for a place of end times punishment.
C. S. Lewis, in his brilliant book The Problem of Pain, exercises his skills as a literary critic, by analyzing the key texts on hell in the Gospels. He demonstrates that there are three primary images: punishment (the “eternal punishment” of Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28’s “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”), and finally privation and banishment (“the outer darkness” where the slave who hid his talents in Matthew 25:30 is sent). Lewis comments, “it is not necessary to concentrate on the images of torture to the exclusion of those suggesting destruction and privation.” He continues by looking again at the conclusion of the parable of the sheep and goats (especially Matthew 25:34, 41). 
[T]he damned go to a place never made for men at all. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.” 
If there is existence in hell, it is a shadowy one. Lewis adds one final reflection on the biblical texts: Jesus emphasizes finality, not duration in these texts. “Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story.”
I must add one note to Lewis. There is also a tension in Scripture between final exclusion and an ultimate healing. 1 Timothy 2:4 affirms that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” A note of universalism also finds its way in the stirring conclusion to 1 Corinthians 15, “for all of us die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” And a cryptic verse in 1 Peter describes Christ preaching to perished souls. Verse 19 says that after his death, he “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.”
So in the end, will all be saved? Will “hell” finally end up in “heal”? John Calvin notoriously saw two rooms into which we were born and elected by the sovereign God—either heaven or hell. The doors are looked, and the decision irrevocable. But what if look specifically to the God we know in Jesus Christ? What if we begin with Christ as the elect Representative for all humanity? By his work, we begin in the embrace of God’s love and therefore in the party room of election. The room is, however, not locked. It is of course our choice to move out into the outer darkness. Will God’s ultimate plan for salvation triumph even over our bad decisions? Perhaps this question cannot be solved theoretically, but through prayer—that we are to pray for a redemption far beyond what we could imagine. Perhaps we are to pray for an embrace that includes our cynical co-worker, the rapist who terrorized our streets, and even the most hated and cruel, like the Emperor Nero and Adolf Hitler.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Incredible Foresight

What makes a great author? Among attributes like winsome style and insightful content remains the uncanny ability to see cultural trends, the seeds of which are being sown now, but that won’t bloom for decades.

Read this and tell me if this isn’t today’s “postmodern,” pluralistic world?
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.
Written seventy years ago in a religious newspaper called The Guardian, C. S. Lewis sought to describe the environment in which a devil-tempter tries to draw a human being, “the Patient” away from God. This is the environment Lewis brilliantly, poignantly described in first entry in a set of newspaper articles later published as The Screwtape Letters.

What do you think? Does that describe the world you live in?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friendship, Just Friendship

I've been thinking about friendship this week. 

The precipitating cause is this: Philip Yancey (the quite well-known Christian author) is preaching at Bidwell Presbyterian this Sunday morning. But he's not bringing the word at our evening worship service, the 545. So that leaves a gap. And I need to fill that gap and preach in the evening. So I scoured the book of Philippians to find a text we hadn't used yet in our series and came across the beautiful section in chapter 2 where Paul describes his relationship with Timothy and Epaphroditus.
It's raining outside in Chico as I type.
Probably why I chose this image

The second inspiration is this: Eugene Peterson, as he led the consultation last weekend, reminded us that Jesus finished his teaching with his disciples by calling them friends in the gospel of John (chapter 15). "I'm no longer calling you servants because servants don't understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I've named you friends because I've let you in on everything I've heard from the Father." As Eugene puts it, that's a relational way of describing God--the God we know who exists as a relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I find that an excellent reminder about God and about a truly good life.

And it's a reminder that brings me back to Philippians 2:19-30 and these two friends of Paul, who supported him as he journeyed around the ancient Roman Empire, shared the message of Jesus, and eventually got imprisoned. When you do that kind of thing, you need some friends!

Let me focus on Timothy, particularly three characteristics that make him a good friend: Paul calls him isopsychos (literally, “same soul,” “equal”), which is an echo of Psalm 55.13, “But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend….” Timothy is also one who is "anxious" for the well-being of his fellow Christians in Philippi... which they need during a particularly poignant time. (It's the same Greek word as in Philippians 4:6, so “being anxious” as a general case is not a problem--we just have to decide what we're going to be "anxious" or "concerned" about.) His conclusion about Timothy? And I love this: “But you yourselves know that Timothy’s the real thing.” Timothy is authentic--the inside and the outside match. He's the kind of friends we all love to have.

So I go back to last weekend, and the consultation with Eugene Peterson and Albert Borgmann on technology. Here's the problem technology presents: it can take us away from real human relationships. We'd rather text than talk, or check Facebook than get together, let alone define "friends" as "Facebook does. When technology enhances what we do face-to-face, that's a different story, but we are created to have friends, and I'm grieved to see a society that has become increasingly lonely and separated, sometimes because it's technologically proficient.

Because the nature of God is relational, because God has called us friends, and because we are designed to have good friends. That's one thing the God's community, the church, at its best, can offer--real relationships.

I think I'll just post this and maybe revise it later... leaving it for now as essentially some random musings...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Jesus and Eugene Peterson Aren’t that Impressive. But Tech Is. That’s the Problem.

One of the things about Jesus is that he’s not very impressive.

Now please don’t get me wrong—I (almost) never fail to marvel at Jesus’s stunning insights into our nature as human beings. Because of course Christ the Word became flesh, became human.

Somehow that brings me to the consultation on technology and faith I just took part in at beautiful Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of Texas. In truth, the speakers were a little bit disappointing. Or maybe better simply human. And the element of humanity is always a bit disappointing in light of the dazzle of technology. Like the new iPod--it's better than the first generation… the one I own. It’s faster, thinner, and doesn’t require any of that irritating boot-up time (like 2 seconds). That’s cool and exciting.

So, yes, it was in some ways disappointing. Borgmann was really nice and quite thoughtful. But I didn’t feel my heart pump faster when he lectured. Peterson’s voice is gravelly and a little underwhelming. I reported on Facebook that I received the Lord’s Supper from him. But I’ve had better celebrants. I’ve definitely heard more impressive speakers. In fact, one of his major themes is the unimpressive in the quotidian.

I learned that we need to be careful of technology because it so often promises immediacy and thrill and obscures the ordinary and the human. Borgmann rightly calls us back to “focal practices” based on the Latin word focus or “hearth” where we gather together for warm, for meals, and for human companionship. Peterson brought us back to Jesus’s language of “friends” in his last night on earth—an entirely relational language, where ordinary human beings relate to one another. He reminded us that Jesus took significant time in the last week of his life—as recorded in Luke’s Gospel—to spend hours and days with the Samaritans, those “bastards” of faith (to use Peterson’s language), those half-siblings of the Jews. He closed with the parable where the farmer doesn’t give up on the plant that doesn’t grow, but decides to add more manure. Manure—something that doesn’t impress. Or even attracts. But in this parable, manure offers the possibility of growth and new life. I heard a testimony from another participant who, in a time of deep personal crisis was riding a horse and saw a pile of manure with a tomato plant growing in it. (I’m not kidding.) At that moment, God spoke: “I can do much more through a pile of manure than I can do through you all your best efforts.” I hope I can capture how powerful a testimony that was.

And what was most significant at the conference? The human interactions with some people who subtly impressed me. People who listened. People who cared about God’s mission in this world. Some liked technology (the technophiles); others were more restrained, or even fearful (techophobes). But above all, they cared about people.

Do you know what was best? The musicians. It all began with singing the hymns—those great collections of faith that have sustained Christians in worship for decades. And then I heard from Andy (and later, his wife Jill) Gullahorn. The latter opened with a song that seemed to open a place in my heart, “Someone to You.” He sang, “I can be nobody as long as I’m someone to You.” Tears came to my eyes. There it was—in the end, we can be human (and, so often, unimpressive) to one another because we belong to God. That’s when we become someone. I can only paraphrase at the moment, but one of my great mentors of faith, Karl Barth, started the Barmen Declaration with something like this: Jesus Christ, as he is attested in the Scripture, is the one Word of God we have to hear and obey.

I wonder if all this is actually quite significant. Was Jesus’s voice unimpressive as Eugene Peterson’s? Might the center of life be as mundane as having the focal practice as sharing a meal together? Might technology bring us nice toys, which at their best enhance our work and life as we respond to God, but nonetheless represent some things—because they dazzles and impress—that we might tempted to worship as idols?

I close with this: I’m in the process of completing my forties, and I’m getting less and less willing to waste time in things that aren’t important and life-giving. May I be ready to find the truly significant. May I find something growing right in the midst of what is entirely unimpressive.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do Things You Love to Do

I'm at a consultation where the philosopher Albert Borgmann is speaking on technology and faith. Below is how I interacted with his thought in Say Yes to No: 

One of the best steps to a healthy spiritual rhythm is to remember what you love to do and to do it.
Help for our imprisonment to our techie toys can come from unexpected places. At least it did for me. I first really began to engage in this topic when I was invited to a consultation with Albert Borgmann. Professor Borgmann represents an unusual type of professional philosopher—the kind who brings together running in the mountains of Montana with analyzing Martin Heidegger’s weighty (and largely incomprehensible) philosophical tome, Being and Time. In March 2001, I was invited to a consultation with Borgmann on science, technology and its effect on contemporary life. This bright-eyed, ebullient seventy-something has developed a powerful concept, a “focal practice.” What is it? “Focal” is derived from the Latin word for “hearth,” the focus, in the Roman world, where the family met for cooking, for warming the house, for conversing. Today instead we punch in the numbers for the digital thermostat; my daughters codes the microwave for her quesadillas at 5:45, I “nuke” Lean Cuisine at 6:20, and my wife warms pasta at 6:40. And it’s possible for no one to eat together. In the early days of TV, we at least used to sit together and watch Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners. Now each member in a house has a separate monitor on a different cable channel or DVD. Borgmann says that our technology—which we believe has simplified life so that we could spend time together—actually draws us apart. But focal practices draw us to our true selves. They draw us together. He counsels the use of focal practices with the questions, “Would you rather be doing something else right now?” If so, you are not engaged in focal practices.
A focal practice is something of ultimate concern and significance, which is often masked by technology’s appeal. It must be preserved by its connection with actually doing it.  Borgmann puts it this way: “Focal things require a practice to prosper within.” His examples include music, gardening, long-distance running, and “the culture of the table” (meaning taking more time than simply nuking leftovers or driving up to Jack-in-the-Box). These examples are often plain and inconspicuous, in contrast to the awe-inspiring things on which our ancestors were focused, such as temples and cathedrals. Borgmann adds a note of realism that technology seduces: “Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e. the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment.” Translated: it’s not easy to do. We even resist it. It’s easy to plop down with our kids in front of a TV, call for pizza delivery and watch Lord of the Rings on video. And sometimes that’s a great idea. But when technology single-handedly sets the agenda, we lose the key rhythms of life.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Use the Power of No to Restrict Technology’s Reach

I'm about to attend a conference on technology and the spiritual life, where--among others--we'll hear from the philosopher Albert Borgmann. (If you want a quick intro to Borgmann, go here.) I was reminded of a related chapter I wrote in Say Yes to No, which I've "reprinted below." (And you can always feel free to buy the whole book. Just in case you were wondering....)

It seems we are more addicted to entertainment than previous generations. (It goes along with an affluent culture.) Nonetheless, there are similarities about the human condition through various times. We haven’t really gone further than the insights of the 17th century scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who lived when modern science—and its promise of technological salvation—began to peer into our world. This brilliant scientist and devout Christian possessed such extraordinary sensitivity into human motivations that his four hundred year old collection of reflections, Pensées, remains a perennial bestseller. In it, Pascal offers this succinct and piercing assessment of our condition, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.”

That’s a hauntingly accurate insight and one worth attempting. Try sitting in a room. No TV. No stereo. No Internet. In a weird way, the lack of distractions is distracting. Our minds wander. We become twitchy and uncomfortable. So we seek distractions. Tellingly, in Pascal’s own language French, the word distraction means “separation, subtraction, absence of mind, inattention, heedlessness, diversion, hobby.” And so we seek increasing amounts of hobbies to make us inattentive. One Microsoft executive coined a term for this state, “continuous partial attention.” Or inattention. This drive is demonstrated most notably in the lives of the rich and famous and for—the hoi polloi—our tremendous fascination with them. Pascal believed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success:
That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert rock star, CEO], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.
I suspect that’s one reason people want to win the Lotto: to seek distraction from their problems.

            But at some point, the distractions cease and it’s just you. With palpable wit and humor, Anne Lamott reviewed her life of addictions and obsessions as a means of battling “aloneness.” Ultimately, she arrives at a strikingly similar diagnosis as Pascal with a different flavor. She tested all kinds of things to distract herself from aloneness “in sometimes suicidally vast quantities—alcohol, drugs, work, food, excitement, good deeds, popularity, men, exercise, and just rampant compulsion and obsession.” For awhile it seemed to work; “And I did pretty well, although I nearly died. But then recently that aloneness walked right into my house without knocking, sat down, and stayed a couple of weeks.” In find this last image of aloneness staying with us provocative. There comes a point where we can no longer hide and every technological device cannot keep out the demons. We do all we can to avoid confronting aloneness… which is one reason we need real friendships.

            Nevertheless, all these technological advances are fascinating, aren’t they? And increasingly, they’re just cute. Something so small and endearing can’t be evil. The new iPod shuffle is advertised for its tiny-ness. Hardly bigger than a quarter. Up to 240 songs. Hangs on your back pocket.

Or pick a movie—the 1987 Wall Street for example—and grok that behemoth mobile phone on the ear of Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). While “Greed is good” Gecko walks on the beach, he controls the destiny of companies simultaneously and gets a workout. Compare that device with the parody in 2001 Zoolander of the micro-size cell phone, which looks about the size and heft of a matchbook. Technology in its cuteness and ease insidiously wheedles their way into our lives.

They’re also new. Imbedded in our thinking is the evolutionary dogma that newer is better. So we trust in the recent, the fresh. And with technology, I’d be hard-pressed to defeat the contention that my previous laptop zipped through my programs and websites as the one I’m typed on right now.  I placed above the picture of what the RAND Corporation proposed in 1954 as the look and size of a potential “home computer” in 2004. By my lights, it was ten feet tall and twelve feet wide, and when you add the gargantuan dot matrix printer (and a steering wheel that looked like it was taken from Giligan’s Island’s S.S. Minnow), it would fill most of a small bedroom. 

So what’s the immediate conclusion? “Look how fast science and technology move—even quicker than we could expect.” But, God and all things spiritual, seem, well, so old… and therefore inferior. I doubt we’d admit our bias that directly, but we might state that technology obviously progresses and religion just stays the same.  So a technological prejudice lurks around our lives and can stifle spiritual health.

            Now, as I’ve already confessed, I realize the difficulty at putting techie toys aside for me. I love gadgets. I don’t think they’re Satan with transistors and silicon chips. To have a portable device that carries hundreds of songs is still amazing. It almost achieves the category of “miracle.” I’m old enough to remember the advent of the Walkman and how astounding that moment was as we snuck into the library, studied for finals, listening all the while to Toto and Hall and Oates. I like to make calls when I’m in my car. To be connected is to be productive. I live in a technological world. As I type this into my laptop, iTunes plays music downloaded from the web on the hard drive, my cell phone rests in my briefcase, and two email accounts are retrieving messages (with an enormous quantity of spam).

So I find these gadgets really helpful. Despite how much I used the power of no to weed out unnecessary elements in my life, I’m still reasonably busy. And I have a lot of tasks to attend to. If I can save some time through email and cell phones, I may actually find some for activities I really enjoy. And technology can make me more productive, especially with all the options available for communication. I still marvel at email and the wonder of sending the same document with efficient simultaneity to a committee in preparation for a meeting, and of checking in briefly with friends across massive distances without stamps, envelopes, and annoying time delay. When I arrive at work, my first thought is whether I’ve received any exciting emails. (Naturally, I’m not nearly as thrilled about spam.) It’s a direct way to connect with hundreds of people. Office voicemail eliminates the problem of calling someone at 10pm (which frankly is when I often have time to return calls). And I have a particular weakness for cell phones. I mean, my wife, Laura, could reach me on my cell even when was biking home through Central Park.

            And yet, to be honest, there’s a downside: these alternatives often complicate instead of simplify our lives. The ease of communicating becomes a curse. At times I feel obligated to check messages on the email accounts 24/7. ITunes doesn’t load properly, and I spend two hours of frustration making sure I can download my next recording effortlessly. Laura and I spend a week of frustration and experience collateral marital damage trying to load Windows.

Nonetheless, as Lamott and Pascal point out, it’s also about boredom. When I sit by myself, I’m challenged by silence, by inner desires and fears. I don’t like quiet. It’s disturbing. I want to be entertained. It’s probably also about fear. I’m afraid that deep down I’m missing something when I’m not plugging into the iPod or letting the music from my computer fill the air. I tremble at the thought of missing the up-to the minute Dow report or of having someone send an email that doesn’t get a 30-minute-or-less response. Will they think I’m inefficient? Will I miss out?

            So, as a family, we have created a few guidelines to restrict technology’s reach. We ignore the phone at dinner. We limit our kids’ “screen time” (computers, TVs, iPods) during the day so that our lives aren’t one continuous video feed. We find that a couple of hours a day is a good target. And, as yet, there is not Wii or XBox in our house. A friend takes a weekly Sabbath from email, and so we too have blackout hours from Entourage and Outlook. The net result? A fuller, richer, more centered life.