The Devil’s Advocate

The definition of a devil’s advocate is “a person who champions the less accepted cause for the sake of argument”.  This function was established by the Roman Catholic Church in 1587 by Sixtus V and involved a Roman Catholic official whose duty was to make arguments opposing an individual being recognized as a saint by the Church.  The purpose was to ensure the candidates for sainthood were truly deserving.

The importance of such a process is illustrated by the fact that when Pope John Paul II reduced the power of this office in 1983 it enabled him to canonize around 500 individuals as compared to only 98 canonizations by all the 20th century popes combined.  If one does not need to deal with contradictory information, one can do whatever one likes.

Having to deal with contradictory information concerning our Christian beliefs is troubling.  Having to critically examine the evidence for our beliefs is problematic. The easy way to avoid all these problems is just to ignore the evidence that contradicts our position.  As Christians this is easy to do because we can justify problems with our belief system by saying God’s ways are incomprehensible to us finite creatures and therefore we must believe even if it does not make sense to us.

However, God has not structured our existence like some Alice in Wonderland world in which we must believe in a half a dozen impossible things before breakfast [1] if we want to be saved.  God made us rational beings and we should use that facility to ensure our beliefs conform to what the Bible teaches, not to what traditional Christianity teaches.  The function of a devil’s advocate still has its place in our Christian culture.

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[1]   Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, Mahwah, NJ:  Watermill Press, 1983, p. 187.

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Living Out Christianity

Two articles in World caught my attention.  The first was about Christians in Africa.  The Transforming Nations Alliance (TNA), a Christian project in Uganda, states:  “while many Sub-Saharan African countries boast of large Christian populations, their impact or influence is hardly seen or noticed in the real world.  The Church in these nations has largely lost credibility and is accused of being totally irrelevant in society.” [1]

Is the rest of the Christian world any different?  Where does Christianity have a major impact of a society; where does Christianity have credibility?

Another article was about one family’s struggle with a child who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Their pastor comments about the impact Christianity has had on the family:  “It’s amazing to see someone not just talking about it, but living it out.  You can read a book or an article about it, but it’s not the same as when you see a life actually living it.” [2]

Why is it amazing to see someone living out Christianity?  Should it not be the norm for Christians to live as Christ lived?

The reason for both the issues we have raised above is because we have made Christianity solely a belief system.  All we need to do is say a few words to gain admission into heaven and then we continue to live our lives the way we always have lived them.  But that is not what Christianity is about.  It is fundamentally about a change of our soul so it becomes like God.  Until the Church realized that, it will continue to be irrelevant for most people in this world.

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[1]   Marvin Olasky, “Africa’s Hinge”, World, February 8, 2014, p. 39.
[2]   Sophia Lee, “Saving Seth”, World, February 8, 2014, p.49.

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Capacity for Evil and Good

Unbroken is a book about Louis Zamperini.  He was a track star before World War II.  Some thought that he would be the first to break the four minute mile but WWII intervened.  Instead Louis became a bombardier on a B-24.  He survived several bombing raids including one that left 594 holes in his airplane.  But while searching for another downed airplane in the Pacific Ocean, his plane was lost.  He survived over 40 days on the ocean with no food and water other than what he could gather.  Unfortunately the ocean currents took him to Japanese held territory and he was captured.  The torture he endured in various POW camps is unbelievable.

After the war Louis’ life was chaotic as he turned to alcohol because of what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome.  He was converted to Christian when his wife essentially brow beat him into attending a Billy Graham meeting.  He forgave those who abused him and turned his life around.

Any philosophy of life must take into account the experiences of the Pacific POWs of WWII.  “They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.” [1]  I would also add it must explain why some Japanese guards resisted the mistreating of the POWs often at the cost of physical harm to themselves.  The same applied to the local villagers.  Some mistreated the prisoners while other helped them. [2]  Why was there such a different response to the POWs?

The motivation of some Japanese to help the POWs but others to harm cannot be Christianity because the Japanese guards and villagers were not Christians.  So what caused them to do what is right even at a cost?  Some would say this is an example of God’s common grace.  Then why do some respond to God’s common grace and others do not?

The answer is that God has given various amount of light to different people.  God will judge us based upon how well we live up the light he has given us.  Becoming a Christian will not necessarily get us into heaven.  What is necessary is that we respond to God when he convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).

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[1]   Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, New York:  Random House, Kindle Location 5608.

[2]   Ibid., Kindle Location 3134, 3146, 3777.

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The Hard Work of Faith

Cynthia Allen, in an opinion piece “Knowledge and the hard work of faith”, states that most people in our era are not willing to pursue religious beliefs because that”requires work, commitment, and study”. [1]  The question raised by her statement is:  What is it that makes the study of religion challenging?

I have studied other religions but not enough to feel comfortable to comment on them.  However, I do know a little about Christianity.  The way Christianity is currently taught does not make it difficult.  David Wells states many Christians have taken the teaching that salvation is through belief in Jesus to heart.  The result is that:  “For a one-time admission of weakness and failure they got eternal peace with God.” [2]

However, as we have stated in this blog, the Bible teaches that the way of salvation is more demanding—“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV).  Christianity is difficult because salvation is more than a belief; it is the change of our soul so it becomes like God and that requires work.  It requires we spend a lifetime immersed the process of renovating our soul.

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[1]   Cynthia M. Allen, “Knowledge and the hard work of faith”, Tulsa World, April 19, 2014, p. A17.

[2]   Chris Stamper, “Authors by the Dozen”, World, Vol. 17, No. 23, p. 53.

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Christian Unity

Pope Francis recently sent a video to a conference of Pentecostals.  Perhaps somewhat surprising, because the Catholic Church has had a somewhat stormy relationship with the Pentecostals, his message was a plea for unity. [1]

As Pope Francis acknowledges, we Christians come from very different cultures and backgrounds.  We have very different ways of looking at the world.  We emphasize different teachings of Jesus or we interpret what Jesus said in different ways.  For some reason we Christians seem to want to emphasize our differences more than we want to acknowledge the beliefs we have in common.  Should not our faith transcend our differences?

Pope Frances is correct when he states the disunity in the Christian faith is because of sin.  That sin is primarily the sin of ego.  Every branch of Christianity thinks they possess the correct interpretation of the Bible.  How can we be this confident knowing the Bible teaches we are finite and sinful creatures?

The dictionary defines a Christian as one who believes in the teachings of Jesus.  One of Jesus’ teachings was that we Christians were to be as one just like Jesus and God are one (John 17:20-23).  When will Christians follow this teaching of Jesus?  Cannot we celebrate the fact that we all are brothers and sisters in Christ even if we disagree on some points of theology?

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[1]  Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, “Pope reaches out to Pentecostals”, Tulsa World, March 30, 2014, p. A12.

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Like Christ

ISideWith.com has a poll on whether Jesus would approve of modern Christianity if he suddenly appeared on earth today.  Overwhelmingly the poll says he would not.  The highest percentage of the various categories that said he would approve was 25% but the vast majority were in the single digits.

Now this is not a scientific poll; it is just a poll of people who visit this web site.  However, this poll is not the only source of information on how people view Christianity.  Ghandi said:   “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians — you are not like him.” [1]  Evidently Ghandi would agree with the results of this poll.

Dan Merchant’s book Lord Save Us from Your Followers asks:  “What are Christian people known for?”  The answer is generally not positive. [2]  Why is Jesus so well thought of but his followers are not?

The answer is that we have a faith that emphasizes a belief system, not a faith that is lived each day.  We are more concerned that we have the correct belief system than we are that our soul is changed so it becomes like Christ.

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[1]   Stanley E. Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, New York: The Abingdon Press,1925, p. 114.

[2]   Dan Merchant, Lord Save Us from Your Followers, Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2008.

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The Worst Hard Time

Timothy Egan’s book about the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s describes what the people of that era and location endured and it is incredible—children and old people dying of dust pneumonia, canning Russian thistles to eat, eating road kill, shoveling dirt out of their houses for years, watching their animals die because the animals’ respiratory and digestive systems were clogged with dust. [1]  These people were made of sterner stuff than we are today.

The Dust Bowl was caused by humans, specifically mistaken public policy and a lack of knowledge.  The government encouraged the settlement of this area (which they had originally promised to the Indians).  The ranchers who had lived in that area for some time knew that it was only suited for grazing.  However, some newcomers deceived by a few wetter than normal years and high grain prices, tore up millions of acres of prairie grass that held the soil in place and when the rains diminished the winds carried the dust across America to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dust Bowl is a story of two scourges of the human race:  our sinful nature and our ignorance.  We are greedy.  We do not consider the long term consequences of our actions because we are only interested in our immediate gratification.  We are ignorant.  We are so lacking in our knowledge of our world and many times we take actions that have disastrous consequences.  We have the option of addressing both of these human failings.  The question is whether we will do so.

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[1]   Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time, Boston:  A Mariner Book,
Roughton Mifflin Company, 2006.

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Ignoring Data

Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who had a rare illness.  Bacterial meningitis attacked the cortex of his brain which essentially shut down this part of his brain for seven days.  The cortex controls memory, language, emotions, visual and auditory awareness, and logic—basically all the parts of the brain that make us human.  During this time he had what many would call a near death experience which transformed him from a scientist who dismissed the idea that anything beyond the material world existed to one who now is convinced the spiritual world is an essential part of our lives.

In his book, Dr. Alexander is critical of those who refuse to look at the data that exists on spiritual matters although he admits he once did the same.  He says:  “They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.” [1]  He is right.  There are many who refuse to even look at the data which indicates that more than our material world exists.  How can one claim to be a seeker of truth if one ignores readily available data?

However, the same statement also applies to us Christians.  We believe we know the truth but if questions are raised about our faith, we need to address them and not ignore them.  In this blog, we have raised three questions about the doctrine of salvation (see My Beliefs).  Will Christians address those questions or will they ignore them?  The choice is ours.

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[1]   Eben Alexander, M.D., Proof of Heaven, New York:  Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012, p. 153.

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Semmelweis Effect

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician in the 1800’s who had the audacity to publish the idea that doctors should wash their hands before attending to a patient.  This was not just some wild idea of his; he had research to back it up.  As they say, no good deed goes unpunished and his punishment was to be ostracized by the medical community.

As a result, we have named an aspect of the human condition after Dr. Semmelweis.   “The Semmelweis reflex or ‘Semmelweis effect’ is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” [1]

Now some maintain that at least parts of the ‘Semmelweis effect’ story are a myth. [2]  However, regardless of its truth, the fact remains that we humans have a tendency to reject new information that contradicts what we already know.  This is especially true in our religious beliefs.  We are of the opinion, whether we realize it or not, that our interpretation of the Bible is infallible.  Therefore any interpretation of the Bible that is different than ours is wrong.

There is nothing wrong with being confident in our beliefs provided we have reasons for those beliefs (I Peter 3:15).  However, if we do discover problems in our belief system, we must address, not ignore, them.  In this blog we have pointed out at least three problems with the Christian doctrine of salvation.  The question is:  Will the Christian community will address those problems or continue to ignore them.

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[1]   http://semmelweis.org/about/dr-semmelweis-biography/

[2]   http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/bacteriology/expert-skeptics-suckered-again-incredibly-the-famous-semmelweis-story-is-another-supermyth

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Is Evil Superior to Good?

Machiavelli is of the opinion that a good person of necessity must come to grief among people who are not good and that a leader must do what is considered to be evil in order to keep his realm or organization intact. [1]  Is evil superior to good as a method of organizing society?

A look at our world shows that the use of force predominates.  Dictators imprison, torture, and kill their opponents.  Those in democracies who are in power use the political and legal system to suppress their opponents.  It is difficult to point to an example of someone in power who is truly good in his/her official actions.

Our experience tells us that good does work.  Jesus had only 12 disciples to carry on his work and while they were severely persecuted, they were not destroyed.  In fact they flourished.  Gandhi’s non-violent movement confronted the military might of Britain and succeeded in gaining independence for India.

If good does work, why do so many choose to do evil; why does Machiavelli recommend doing evil?  One answer is that it is quicker.  A robber in minutes takes what took you hours, days, or weeks to earn.  A ruler can throw dissidents in prison or execute them in order to remain in power rather than taking the time to develop a consensus among the people of his/her country.

Both evil and good will work.  Machiavelli recommends using both to remain in power.  Yes, at times one who is good will come to grief among people who are not good.  But likewise, some evil people come to grief as well.  We have a choice to make.  Will we do whatever it takes to remain in power or will we do what is right?

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[1]   Luigi Ricci, trans., Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, New York:  New American Library, 1952, p. 84.

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