Power over the Waves: Jesus and the Psychology of Fear (Part I)

calming sea

(Text: Mark 4:35 – 41)

A recent survey conducted in Australia revealed that young people now experience worry and fear at an unprecedented rate. Among the most common fears were those connected to the future, which is not terribly surprising. Almost by definition our worries and fears are about things set in our future. “What is going to happen to me?” people wonder, “What if everything goes wrong?”

Sometimes worry or fear can be so immanent in the mind that it poisons the entirety of a person’s life. A fearful mind results in waning joys; exhausted disinterest in legitimate pleasures; and God is made to seem cold and distant. Life is emptied of sunlight. And since fear exists solely in the realms of the mind, it is in the mind that fear must be dealt with.

The Bible promises that it is possible to be truly and completely happy in this life (on God’s terms, of course). This is a revolutionary doctrine in a world where great numbers of people are unhappy, others have lapsed into glum pessimism, and where many other people believe that the best they can hope for is merely moderate levels of happiness before death. Into this context, like a message on a battlefield radio, comes word from heaven: full happiness is possible whatever our circumstances. But to experience “joy unspeakable” – the “joy that is full” (John 15:11) – it is first necessary that a person be set free from worry and fear. Nobody can be purely and simply joyful if he is afraid.

And this is biblical. For the stern and parched hyper-Calvinists among us (sharing commonwealth with the chalk-smeared schoolmaster of Victorian yore), who glory in preaching doom and misery like the man sitting under the shade of the last palm tree in the desert, this is the explicit instruction of scripture. Indeed, our Lord teaches his disciples “do not worry about your life” and St. Paul writes “be anxious about nothing“.

So it is that the Christian disciple, in practising the faith, should be keenly concerned about setting himself free of fear and worry. This is part of our spiritual patrimony; our heritage of joy. It belongs to those who, like the character of Christian in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, have feet that are set toward the Celestial City. The Spirit himself bequeaths this state of mind to those in whom he lives, as Timothy is told: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love and self-control“.

Likewise, the commandment “be not afraid” appears in the Bible (NIV) some 70 times. But the theme of fear is addressed a great deal more often if we also consider attendant teachings, such as commandments to trust in God, take refuge in him, and be full of courage. “Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death“, says the king who travelled that dismal valley so many times during his turbulent life, “yet I will fear no evil because You are with me.

Freedom from fear and worry is therefore a product of right thinking. To achieve a mind liberated from fear, the Christian must understand fear and why it is a sin to worry and fret in the Lord’s universe. The Bible gives us a complete taxonomy of fear and how it works. It does this for our edification, that we might better realise that worry and fear flow downward from a stark deficiency in knowing God. It is precisely because we fail to really know God as a Person in wonder and joy – notwithstanding the correctness and orthodoxy of our doctrine – that we become afraid. The remedy therefore (which I will address in a later post) is found primarily in the manner in which we relate to God.

Faith and Fear on Display

In the text referenced above, Jesus tells his disciples to set off across the lake. The Lord being tired out by a day of teaching and healing falls asleep in the back of the ship. A terrible storm erupts on the lake. St. Luke tells the reader that the ship was in serious danger. So much indeed that the disciples, the experienced fishermen among them concurring, thought that they were at imminent risk of drowning.

In their fear, the disciples wake Jesus. Each evangelist records a slightly different statement helping the reader to imagine the hubbub of fearful cries:

“Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” (Luke 8:24)
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25)
“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

St. Matthew tells the reader that Jesus’ first response upon being roused by this urgent din was to rebuke his disciples. Carefully note that St. Matthew tells us that this rebuke occurred prior to the calming of the wind and waves. “You of little faith? Why are you so afraid?” Having said thus, he then issues a command to the furious storm and immediately there is a great calm. The Lord turns to his terrified disciples and says, “Where is your faith?” (Luke). “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark).

Fear is not legitimate for the disciple

Jesus’ rhetorical question to his disciples presupposes a remarkable truth. It tells us that from Jesus’ perspective, which is the only right and valid one for a disciple purporting to follow him, there were no legitimate grounds for them to be afraid. This is astonishing on the face of it, given that our merely human viewpoint would suggest the reverse. It would seem to us that the disciples had good grounds to be afraid since they were totally at the mercy of the storm. Not so, says our Lord. Quite the contrary!

Jesus firmly informs the disciples that had they possessed genuine faith in him, and thus were able to see the hidden realities behind the storm and the surfaces of the world around them, they would never have been afraid. In other words, by lacking faith, they saw the world as a colourblind person sees the world: in flat and brutal monochrome which left them unable to tell a red door from a green one, or a tomato from a crab-apple. Severe is the myopia of the soul. Without faith men are doomed forever to view the world as though standing on their head. Life, the world, and everything in it is seen through the wrong end of the spiritual telescope, so that things which are near and small loom large, and things that are far away and truly great appear insignificant.

The story gives a number of insights into the psychology of fear:

1. Fear is now native to the human mind.
According to Jesus, his disciples had “no faith” or “little faith“.

Faith is alien to us in a fallen world and does not come naturally to anyone. This is why St. Paul says that faith is a “gift from God”. It has to be since we cannot manufacture it ourselves, but faithlessness creates an existential vacuum in the mind and heart of man (who was, after all, designed to be a faith-filled creature). This void must be filled with some in-rushing spiritual element and indeed it is. Fear. Fear has displaced faith in the human condition. In fact, the first recorded human emotion in Genesis is fear. (Genesis 3:10).

Fear is normative now because without faith the grandeur and scope of man’s understanding shrinks to the orbit of a pinpoint. Whereas once, man in his innocence saw all things under the great unifying governance of God, such that we could confidently walk the stars had we wished or swum through nebulae or trod on the flames of the sun which would not have harmed us neither overflowed upon us, now we are conscious only of ourselves, our smallness, weakness, fragility, and the tyranny of our circumstances. The world seems massive. Life in it appears to be the only thing that matters. The titanic and eternal depths of the spirit seem ethereal and insubstantial. Our various problems seem insurmountable. Faithlessness pretends the universe is all about us, and God is pushed to the periphery of his own creation, distant or even absent altogether.

Our native reaction has become an innate distrust of God. Even the Christian, in his unguarded hours, may be both suspicious and cynical about God’s power. Yes, we can readily believe theoretically that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good. On paper, of course, the theory is extremely straightforward and childishly easy to grasp. But when things get difficult and worries and fears emerge from the surf of the fleshly mind, we find it much harder to function on the basis of even our cherished theory.

It is like a man who has been told that there is an invisible bridge crossing the span of a deep chasm. The man learns about the bridge. It is a strong bridge, he discovers, and never fails. He comes to confidently proclaim the existence of the bridge to others.

But all the theory in the world is meaningless until the man places his foot over the chasm and puts his weight on the invisible surface he has claimed is there. At that point we get to see whether the man really believes what he says. If he steps forward, we see that his message is more than mere fantasy because now, at last, he is operating as if he knew that his theory were true. He trusts his life to it.

The same goes for faith in God.

2. Fear is the product of having our godlike pretensions exposed.
The first sin was not just disobedience to God but an effort to assume his status. This insufferable pride colours the thinking of every human being to one degree or another. We prefer to be in control of our circumstances and destiny. Self-determination!

We also hunger for knowledge that belongs only to the Almighty. Humanity has always wanted to be able to peer through the mists of time and see the future. Even in a scientific age predicting economic, meteorological, sporting, environmental, and social and political outcomes are big business. People want to know what they are not entitled to know.

For the disciples, the storm stripped away these very pretensions. The disciples realised that they were powerless. The storm was big and they were small. The storm was strong and they were weak. It was beyond their resources to cope with and they did not know what to do.  They probably did not think even Jesus could do much except lend his strength to an oar.

They were certain that their fate rested with themselves and since they were unable to deal with the storm on their own, they expected the worst.

The Christian disciple is most afraid when he most convinced that his fate rests with himself. He is afraid when he is convinced that God will not intervene in his life and that he is thrust into the cosmos alone. He is afraid when he thinks that he is ultimately responsible for dealing with his circumstances and problems. He is afraid when he distrustfully assumes that God’s intervention in his creation is miserly and capricious, instead of ongoing, omnipresent, constant.

We are most afraid, in other words when we assume a godlike perspective and attitude, and forget that God is God and we are not. That God is sovereign over ever square inch, every particle, and every happening in his creation.

3. Fear mangles the future and looks to it with distrust.
The problem with both lacking faith and at the same time pretending we are little gods who can take a peek into our future, is that we tend to end up assuming the worst. The future looks painful, difficult, problematic, and downright frightening when we adopt the godlike perspective.

This attribute of the psychology of fear is fully displayed in the inspired narrative. Since the disciples could not deal with the storm, they assumed they were going to drown.

It is a perfectly logical atheistic deduction and would make sense if the universe was a godless one. But this is not an atheistic universe and neither we, nor our circumstances and limitations, are the deciders of our fate. God is.

4. Fear mangles the past and jettisons all memory of God’s mercies and care.
Don’t you care if we drown? asked the disciples, with the heavy implication that Jesus did not. If he did care, wouldn’t he be bailing water and hauling on the rigging too?

Yet in the space of a few chapters, St. Mark has already shown us that Jesus handpicked his apostles. The evangelist gives us the deeply touching scene of Jesus, surrounded by a circle of his disciples, exclaiming, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” And just a short while earlier, Jesus had told his apostles that it was their privilege, unlike those outside, to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

A fearful state of mind quickly forgets the past mercies and care of God. It forgets the storms through which God has already led us; the answered prayers; the loving guidance through the valleys of the shadow of death. Indeed, the faithless mind makes past mercies seem small compared to the present crisis (although if we recall accurately, very often past crises also seemed to be the worst thing ever at the time).

Fear and faithlessness rounds upon God. Don’t you care if we drown?

Even if it does not emerge as a railing accusation against the Almighty, the same attitude can be expressed in other ways. In quiet despair, in nervous exhaustion, in persistent gloom, in listless brooding, in anger directed against human targets, or trickles of fear.

We so quickly and readily take the view that although God has helped us in the past, somehow he is going to desert us in the present. Or, we take the view that past challenges were far smaller than the present crisis, and that while God was adequate to those problems, maybe he is neither willing nor able to help us with the present problem.

5. Fear is a product of thinking we know better than God what is good for us.
The disciples woke Jesus probably in the expectation that he would help them operate the ship and fight the storm. From their perspective that was the best help that Jesus could give to them at that moment. They certainly were not expecting deliverance from the storm. They were not expecting Jesus to stand up in the ship and address the sea. They were not expecting a miracle at all. We know this because once Jesus had calmed the sea the text tells us that the disciples were terrified. What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!

Fear often emerges when the Christian comes to understand that God is not going to dance to our tune, we must dance to his. Yet over and over again, we become convinced that we know better than God what will make us fulfilled, holy, happy, content, joyful, and peaceful. And when it looks like God is not going to assist us in the way we think he should, it produces fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, because we are confronted with the reality that we are not in control.

It can be a frightening thought that God is going to make us happy, holy, and peaceful by the means he has determined. It can be a fearful thought that God will save and sanctify us according to his wisdom, and not ours. We do not like this because of our innate distrust of God’s motives and methods. We never seem to realise that God does what he does for his glory and our benefit, and that ultimately, at the end of our days, at the dawning of eternity, we will be satisfied with the work that God has done in us. With clarity, we will see the love and wisdom in it and we ourselves would have it no other way.

In short: trust God. He knows what he is doing. And we will increase in joy and peace through the process of his dealings. Always.

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Believing in the Resurrection and the Life

Lazarus

(Text: John 11:1-43)

Sometimes God can seem absent and remote from our daily experiences. Anyone who has never experienced what I call the “aloneness of soul” is very fortunate indeed.

Questions can arise, especially in tough times. Where is he? We can wonder about what God thinks and feels toward us. We can puzzle about our status with God. Am I saved? Am I loved? Does God even like me? 

In our distress, Christians cry out to God for answers, help, confirmation, and for remedies. And although sometimes our prayers are answered very quickly, at other times  it can seem that God does not always appear at our side. It can seem as if our prayers have been whispered into the air and floated away into nothingness.

Human beings are designed to be finite creatures. We will always be finite creatures, with fixed boundaries in time and space. We can only be in one place at one time. We can only see the world from an outward-looking perspective.

Our conception of closeness, therefore, involves not just emotional and intellectual intimacy but also a physical proximity. We want those we love to be near. In fact, it is nearly a universal mark of closeness to hug someone. The very act of embracing involves physically drawing another person closer.

Closeness is important to us. When we cry out in distress, it would be a heartless “friend” who could watch us suffer without stirring themselves to help. We expect our friends and loved ones to come near and give us comfort. In order to be a good friend, we understand that we are expected to do the same for them.

Yet in this chapter of his gospel, St. John presents a Christ who does neither. And (seemingly, worse) does neither at a time of great trauma and worry.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus is at a terminal stage of a terrible illness, no doubt bedridden and fevered. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus. They evidently anticipate that he will hurry to them, and save Lazarus as he saved so many others. They expect the response of a friend. Surely, Jesus will run to their aid? Surely Jesus will want to be immediately close to Lazarus?

Yet, no. Jesus purposefully delays. He waits so long, that by the time he arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead and buried for four days.

Is Jesus really so heartless?

St. John is eager to demonstrate that Jesus is not heartless neither callow, nor indifferent to the suffering of his people. St. John goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Troubled! The Lord of Creation!

It is a reminder that Jesus so fully became man that he inhabited and experienced the real traumas of mankind, and is not a stranger to them. It reminds us that Jesus is compassionate and is not a grim, stone-faced theologian who supplies glib answers to life’s tragedies. Instead, he is troubled, even by the death of one insignificant, lowly man and the sorrows of his unimportant family.

St. John wants the reader to understand this point: the stimulus for Jesus’ reaction is the weeping of Mary and the other Jews. Later, when Jesus himself arrives at the tomb, he can no longer contain himself, and also weeps. It must have been profuse weeping too, for the Jews remark, “See how he loved him!“. That’s not a comment in reaction to a teaspoonful of teardrops.

So what does the text teach, then, about prayer and God’s response? In a nutshell:

  1. Problems can be magnified when we attempt to apply our humanity to God. We must not forget the existential differences between God and ourselves, and become immediately discouraged or disheartened if, for example, some cloud of comfort does not immediately materialise over our prayers. Sometimes that happens, but not always.
  2. God does not always answer our prayers immediately. In fact, our prayers are mostly answered after a delay. Very often the grace and sanctification we receive today are thanks to the prayers of yesterday. When we pray, we are really not praying for the present (for that is the moment in which the prayer is lifted), neither for the past (because that has now gone), but for the future. Prayer will always and only be answered in the future, even if the prayer is answered a mere minute after we have finished praying.
  3. Persistence! If there is one thing that Jesus teaches about prayer, it is the need to be persistent. Keep praying. Hold onto the hope of faith and never let go. When it feels like we are all alone and our prayers are futile, at such times we are in fact least alone, for God testifies that he “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit“. The right reaction is to keep praying and hoping.
  4. Jesus delays in order to magnify God’s glory. What does God’s glory mean? It means that he is shown to have power to do what mankind cannot. It means that he comes to the rescue when all is hopeless. It means that he provides a way when there is no other way. It means that when the situation is over, we see the wisdom and power of God as being infinitely superior to our own. And it causes us to grow in faith and love. It makes us more greatly believe in the One that is Immortal, Invisible and Only Wise.
  5. God does feel our pain. If there is one thing this narrative in John’s Gospel should dispel forever, it is the notion – too popular in some theological circles – that God’s Kingship and Sovereignty are incompatible with deep sympathy and compassion for his errant and damaged creation. His love and kindness is seen all the way back in Genesis. When God saw the corruption of his world, he inspired Moses to write unashamedly: “God’s heart was filled with pain“.
  6. Power does not diminish God’s sorrow. Note that although Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus, this power did not make him immune to the sadness around him. He weeps so much that it is unmissable. God may be God, but the temptation to think that unlimited power diminishes God’s heart of compassion is wrong. Jesus is the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief“.

The story of Lazarus, like all stories in John’s Gospel, is one that underscores the role of faith. Not a vague optimism or a general confidence in the future. But a faith that is invested in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the Resurrection and the Life. The great miracle worker and healer of souls and minds. And if he would have us do one thing, even in the darkness, it is “to pray without ceasing“.

It is not wasted effort – it is never wasted! – and we will reap the rewards on a brighter, sunnier day.

Islam.com and Muslim Fears

mosque1-e1485681133897

I am a registered member of Islam.com, which is a discussion forum that has been in operation for a long time. There are heartbreaking requests for help on the forum, on every topic from marriage difficulties to personal struggles for moral conduct. Few things are more tragic than people trying to live up to a standard of virtue without the indwelling of the Spirit to give them victory over sin, and a Saviour to wash away their iniquities.

If there’s one thing that such sites demonstrate, it is that the ISIS version of Islam is not the majority persuasion, and that Muslims are people with all the foibles, eccentricities, and challenges common to the human race. It gives a human face to what lies beneath the surface of a vast religious umbrella.

I first signed up to Islam.com when I was at college, now nearly two decades ago. Back then it was more of an information site, with a discussion forum tacked on. These days the discussion forum is front and centre of the site.

All those years ago, September 11 was still raw and the war in Iraq was raging. “Shock and awe” was the catch-cry of George W. Bush. Interacting with Muslims there, I learned a great deal about how to speak to non-Christians. I came to realise that respect and gentleness – while not always easy – is the key to dialogue and to opening doors for the gospel. Crusader-like arrogance closes doors.

I also learned that dialogue is not a filthy unorthodox word. In fact, when Christians stop speaking to Muslims (and vice versa) the only options remaining are violence, segregation, fear, paranoia, and religious conflict. Through dialogue, I discovered that some of my conceptions were false, and I learned that Muslims likewise have a whole mess of misunderstandings and misconceptions about Christianity.

To speak to people of other faiths with the intention of learning about them is important. This is especially so for an orthodox, believing Christian. How else can we persuade people to listen to the gospel if we do not talk to them? And how else can we overturn their prejudices and fears of us if not by explaining to them what we believe? And how else can we make the ears of Muslims willing to listen, if we do not listen to what they believe? How else are we to gain insight into how the gospel may be best presented if not by dialogue?

Islam.com carries a front page link to an article that documents a spate of religiously-motivated crimes in the United States. Principally, the article outlines the mosques that have been torched, and the fears of the Muslim community of violence directed at them.

Now there are those out there – whether they could be called “Christians” is debatable – who celebrate religious violence of this sort. They lump all Muslim together. In their perverted and twisted outlook, Muslims are guilty by mere religious association. Since ISIS are monsters, all Muslims share their blood-guiltiness, no matter how law-abiding they might be. Thus, all Muslims ought to suffer for the crimes of others.

In fact, some of these folk would claim these actions, though illegal, are commendable. They think this way even when St. Paul commands us to be in subjection to authorities tells us that the “man of God” must be kind to all men. Torching buildings is neither showing respect for God-ordained rulers (who, in general, are not a terror to those who do right), nor does it remotely hint of kindness.

Liberals and secularists cry out in horror against such things. They wring their hands in despair at the thought of discrimination against Muslims. The usual response by conservatives is to say, “Well, you don’t show such passion about X or Y or Z”.

Yet, liberals use the same comeback. Both sides of politics are unending in accusing the other side of hypocrisy, and both sides of politics are right. Liberals and conservatives are equally selective about their outrage and their targets of concern. All are hypocrites.

But Christians are not to be like that. We are not to function on the same basis as the world and its political structures. We are meant to be people of truth. To have bedrock principles that we defend regardless of what a political tribe might say. This means that we may sometimes need to join our voices with the liberals in proper reasoned defence of the marginalised and maltreated. At the next minute, we might need to join our voices with the conservative forces who protest against same-sex marriage or abortion.

When Muslims are threatened in this way then religious freedom as a principle must be defended. For if these mosques burn today without justice, you can be sure that churches will burn tomorrow.

The Worldly System and the Mystery of Iniquity

EffectsUponTheUnbelievingWorld

Entire books could be written on what the Bible simply calls “the world”. This term, which dribbles from Christian tongues so readily, has a far deeper meaning than merely functioning as a label which can be stamped upon a list of evils. Depending on who you talk to, it seems nearly every Christian has their own personal collection of “worldly” evils, from tattoos to television.

But what the apostles mean when they speak of the world is something far more sinister. They speak of a system that has been established in opposition to God. The world consists of the political, social and economic structures within which we live. It is this system that allows some people to attain “power” over others, despite being no smarter, stronger, or more worthy than the men which they govern. It is the worldly system that allows, for example, the rotund dictator of North Korea to destroy other people’s lives in relative immunity from justice.

Neither is the world limited only to malevolent political systems. The idol of “democracy” is just as much part of the world as anything else, despite the efforts of some people to argue otherwise; usually when their politics have bled into their theology until it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

The world consists of attitudes, processes, behaviours, ambitions, habits of thinking, reasoning, and desires that are founded on unbelief and a lack of reverence for God. When a politician expounds some new theory of marriage, he or she is functioning as if God did not exist, and spreading ideas that run counter to God. When a person spends their money on pornography, the worldly system is granting them gratification for their evil desires, and they in turn reciprocate by loving and approving of that system in one aspect or another. That is how the world works. It provides the veins through which sin can flow.

When God placed man on the earth there were no cities, no governments, no technologies, nothing at all, save man and the creation. After mankind’s expulsion from Eden, human beings immediately went to work creating all of these things which, had righteousness been the rule of the day, could have been godly. But unbelief and sin was at work from the beginning. Cain, is the archetype. He goes out from the presence of the Lord and builds himself a city. And ever since, mankind in his hopelessly sinful state, has created “the world”, always and ever founded on unbelief.

The world is characterised in the Bible as a living, potent, toxic system. There is real power in unbelief. St. Paul even refers to the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7). St. John tells us that the “whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Holding sway over this vast web of human interactions is Satan himself, who Christ tells us is the father of lies. When he lies, he speaks his native language (John 8:44).

It is Satan’s supreme purpose to create an “anti-creation” in the form of “the world”. This anti-creation will run counter to God’s revealed will at every point, for it will be sin-soaked, nature-twisting, and perverted. It is Satan’s desire that this anti-creation will eventually become a hell on earth due to the prevalence of sin. As this happens, Satan intends to gloat as he watches human beings show preference for the earthen hell rather than the good creation of God’s righteous order.

The world is already full of Satan’s treasonous philosophy. Every social and moral revolution originates from Satan, who injects it into the worldly system and works tirelessly to have these ideas spread. The beliefs, values and ideas Satan spreads throughout the worldly system are always inimical to human flourishing. Sadly, humankind will always accept his ideas in their own pride and wickedness.

All of this explains why St. Paul can say that men will go from bad to worse as time continues. It is why we have just emerged from the bloodiest century in human history, where mankind discovered industrial means to murder people and developed weapons sufficient nearly to pulverise the life out of the planet. It further explains why St. John can say that the world is passing away; and why Christ says that the world loves darkness rather than light, for its deeds are evil.

Political Correctness: A Parallel Morality

MosesTablets

It is not possible to read the Bible for very long before one comes to realise that central to its message is the concept of law.

The Law of God enters very early into its pages. Before Moses brought the stone tablets down from Sinai in an awesome – even staggering – demonstration that God is the supreme legislator of the universe, there are hints of an inviolable moral construct. Joseph appeals to this, for instance, when resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife.

Much of the Old Testament is an exploration of the splendours of God’s Law. The lengthy 119th psalm is an extended meditation on God’s law and the excellence of its precepts- those things that are moral, behaviourally, and spiritually “legal” are always beautiful, noble, and exalted. It is a moving psalm insofar as it reveals much about the author, a faithful priest whose life had not been a bed of roses, but who had discovered through it all that God’s Law was a bedrock foundation that even offered consolation.

Modern evangelism does not often present God’s Law in this light!

The New Testament does not hesitate to introduce us to Jesus of Nazareth, who is identified as the “Word made flesh“. In his own words, the Lord tells us that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. Christ, therefore, is the embodiment of God’s Law; the solitary perfect man who follows the Law when all around him are lawbreakers.

Later, St. Paul provides an infallible and inerrant interpretation of Christ’s life and ministry, explaining the interplay between Law and grace, and how it is now possible that lawbreakers can be spared the penalty of their spiritual criminality. St. Paul explains that these people who are now saved from the wrath of God the Final Judge, can be renewed in a divine rehabilitation that makes them desire to be true, upstanding citizens of the Kingdom, obedient to the King and to his righteousness.

From beginning to end, the scriptures are soaked with Law. Indeed, the Law of God is the earthly manifestation of God’s character and nature.

The concept of law itself, though pivotal in scripture, is not isolated to Christian societies. Law has emerged in all human societies in all places and at all times. Man may be a natural rebel against the laws of God and even the laws of man, but his own heart and mind bears the indelible imprint of his godly origin – the imago dei –  and so laws and rules flow out of his character nearly spontaneously. Man may lay in moral ruins, like a fallen castle, but the very ruins themselves bespeak of a time when he was erect and walked tall.

Even criminals operate according to codes, rules, and laws. The notorious Italian mafia – the cosa nostra – who have no respect for the laws of either God or man, and pillage and loot according to their whim, nonetheless enforce iron discipline upon each other. They mete out death penalties, tortures, and savage beatings for violating rules that they themselves have legislated.

In this we can see how the imago dei is inescapable, even in a group as revolting as the Mafia. Ironically, the Mafia’s existence is predicated upon rebellion, yet even they have found it necessary to establish laws in order to maintain cohesion within their rebellious group.

A natural capacity for law is expressed early in children. Though they quickly learn that rules often curtail exciting opportunities and tempting pleasures, children are natural lawmakers. Watch any group of children playing a game together, and it will not be long before one or other is appealing to rules, or making rules up, or arguing over the rules.

Neither is the law merely a matter of doing what works, although laws certainly serve the practical purpose of maintaining harmony within a collective of people. But there is a deeper, intangible moral universe underpinning laws that everyone is innately programmed to both understand and recognise. For instance, all people are able to identify laws that are actually forms of injustice – such as those that typically emanate from despots. No child needs to have “rules” and “laws” defined for him or her. They may need to be taught what the rules are for a particular place or situation, but they never need to be taught what rules are. This understanding is native, as it were, straight out of the box.

In our time – a time of universal moral chaos – our culture is in the process of supplanting God’s Law, hitherto communicated through scripture, nature and conscience, with a parallel law. It is manifested primarily in political correctness, and is every much a binding legal code. Sometimes it even has the force of parliamentary law behind it. Yet this new moral code of our times is a direct antithesis to the moral law given by God. It is a challenger to the throne of the Heavenly Legislator. Nearly at every point – in a manner that exceeded even a few ancient pagan societies – the new moral code contradicts God and his Law, which is maligned as bad, retrograde, and repressive.

A prominent example is sexuality. God’s law condemns all forms of sexual behaviour outside of a covenanted union between a man and his wife. But the new morality commands people to not only refrain “from judging” but to celebrate all the forms of sexual expression that carry God’s explicit censure. Thus, our times are marred by sexual abomination and purposeful gender confusion, and this in turn, inflicts great damage upon everything else. Or, take the laws pertaining to fidelity. God’s Law calls men to a life of worship of himself. But the new morality celebrates all religions, and claims some kind of validity for them all.

Movies and music are full of the new morality, with its debased language; its constant innuendos; its crass materialism; its coarse and guttural sensibilities. (No wonder historians in the past used to say that without marriage and all the attendant restraints on human appetites, civilisation is impossible.) It is seen in activist groups, like feminists who wish to impose a whole constellation of outlandish and ridiculous ideas upon the populace, and are halfway to succeeding. It is seen in the theory of climate change which, when taken to extremes, becomes an ideology in search of law.

It is everywhere around us, these new rules and sensibilities. Woe betide “offending” someone who is a member of a protected group of class! Woe to those who dare to speak plain truths into a world governed by this new parallel moral law (I had a comment erased from The Guardian some weeks ago because I had the temerity to point out the reality that homosexual unions are, by definition, sterile).

Yet even so, like the writer of Psalm 119, we can still take comfort from the Law of God. Its penalties as far as Christians are concerned have been lifted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the work he has wrought on the cross. Whatever else may happen, we can stand on this expression of God’s character as a rock foundation. Forevermore it will be a “lamp for my feet and light to my path”, a sure anchor, worthy of our delight and meditation, and that which surely spells the way to a happy, fulfilled, and ultimately purposeful life.

moses-tablets

Bringing Alan Watts Back to Earth

Watts

Alan Watts was a religious everyman, the sort of religious person who is both bizarre and contemptible. No one likes a religious everyman, except other everymen. No true Christian feels any affinity for a man who takes a pinch of Christian theology and mixes it with a pinch of Buddhism and a punch of Hinduism. For their part, Buddhists and Hindus tend to be rather down on the freelance blending of their cherished traditions too.

Although ordained as an Anglican priest in 1945, Alan Watts was never a Christian in any meaningful confessional sense. His first love was always Buddhism and Eastern religion. After five years in the priesthood, an extramarital affair drove him to leave it. He became a wandering star among the firmament shared by 50’s, 60’s and 70’s new age spiritualists, effortlessly spewing forth the buzzwords of the day: “cosmic”, “mystic”, “nature”, “meaning”, “identity”, “psychotherapy” and so on.

Blending various religions together according to his own tastes, Watts created a philosophy that is humdrum and shopworn to anyone familiar with the contemporary New Age movement. There is nothing novel in Watts’ outlook. Nothing distinctive. It is only style that marks him out as different, not substance.

His was a philosophy that celebrated hedonism – good food, alcohol, parties, and sex – and like every other New Age teacher on the block, he taught people to believe that everything that seems real is not real. We are so deceived about the true essence of things, he reasoned, that we need to be shown the reality of our nature.

Watts’ taught that every person “is god” yet was secretly pretending not to be. But if we simply opened our eyes we would see how powerful and grand we all really are. Indeed, the entire universe is compressed into our tiny beings. Thus, life, he claimed, is the discovery of the “true self”. The “true self”, naturally, is always glorious, magnanimous, and free, and never wretched, evil, or in bondage to sin.

Looking inward to oneself in the effort to find a divine essence is a trait of all New Age thinking. It produces, in turn, prideful arrogance and a worldview that is unhinged from the requirement to be based on any objective deposit of reality. Listening to Watts gives one the distinct impression of standing next to quicksand and watching a man paddle across it on a log, making things up as he goes along.

For one after the other – now here! now there! – Watts makes bold assertions about life upon the basis of no authority other than himself. Then, to justify these, he selects convenient examples from nature, or daily life, or something he claimed to have seen. This constitutes the “evidence” for his views, but it is really such a flimsy, folksy approach, and so nakedly intellectually dishonest that only a person already halfway up New Age creek would find it at all compelling. Deeper scrutiny reveals that the foundation for his claims rests entirely on Watt’s own subjective, ever-moving opinion.

New Age teachers were buried by the hecatomb when the hippie movement ran out of steam and the young radicals started to settle into the conventional lives they had professed to despise. Alan Watts, too, would have disappeared into the fog of time like the overwhelming majority of his fellow gurus, except for three things.

Firstly, he was much given to having his monologues recorded, which had the attendant effect of prolonging his notoriety. Secondly, Watts was a skillful speaker; something that most people would be forced to acknowledge even if the actual content of his speeches were utter nonsense. And thirdly, Watts never missed the opportunity to tell people that they were amazingly powerful and could shape their realities to their will. The only reason they had failed to do so, he said, was because they had not realised that they were god after all. Start telling people that they are god with the power of the universe within them, and what do you know? They like it.

If only starving refugees and the victims of war could have experienced Alan Watts to breezing into the nearest town to let them know that they were actually god and had created their own realities, I’m sure they would feel as enlightened and liberated as Watts did, living out his final years on a serene houseboat and in a semi-intentional commune on Druid Heights. (The fatal flaw of the New Age religions is their incapacity to cope with the problem of evil. Theodicy is not merely the Achilles’ Heel of the New Age, but the inferno that consumes it and renders it mere ashes.)

Despite Watts lecturing to others about the secret of life, his own was astonishingly sordid. Three marriages, one ending through an extramarital affair, and another because after having started a family with one woman, he met another. Toward the end of his life, his friends worried about his excessive drinking. It seems probable that he became an alcoholic – or something dangerously close to it. And alcoholism does not exactly sell the idea of a glorious, successful, radiant, god-shaping-self, type life. Well might we say, “Physician, heal thyself“.

The following clip shows Alan Watts at his finest, mixing logical categories and getting stuck on words, projecting his own subjective experiences out to humanity in general and turning them into law, and drawing from this or that anecdote as if it somehow makes the case for the otherwise incoherent nonsense being spouted.

It is difficult to rebut, not because there is so much robust and logical substance, but because there is scarcely any substance at all. Skip to 4:08 to see a classic example.

Evolution: Sophisticated Magic

magic

An old article appeared in a newsfeed sidebar last week that caught my attention. It was about human hair, a topic that is addressed on nearly every news website. Usually in kitschy, tabloid articles that pad out the political news.

This article responded to a question: “From an evolutionary standpoint, why is it beneficial for men to have facial and chest hair?”

The question, of course, presupposes 1.) that evolution is true, and 2.) that evolutionary theory tells us something meaningful about male hair. I would dispute the first premise. There is abundant testimony in the natural world that it has been carefully formed by our Creator.

Yet even if a person accepts evolutionary theory, exactly how are scientists to derive objective, useful, provable information about why men have chest and facial hair? Where might scientists go and what evidence might they look at to derive insight into a abstract process that allegedly took millions of years, and was unfocused, undirected, and completely mindless? Evolution is not, after all, a person. It does not have the properties of personality. It does not set out with a specific purpose in its “mind” to shape organisms in a general direction until they reach a targeted end-point.

Yet whenever evolution is spoken of – even in this case by a professor of zoology – it is nearly always in terms that attribute personhood to the process. It is nearly impossible for evolutionists to speak of evolution without implying it had a mind and purpose of its own. A creative force can never be a mindless force. And since evolution is regarded as a creative force, usurping the place of God, it cannot be spoken of for long without giving it a mind. Take the following example:

But evolution is usually pretty prompt at getting rid of features we don’t need, says Gibbins, so the reason men still have facial and chest hair is more likely due to sexual selection.

The article goes on to give the professors answer to the question. Note that the professor appeals to no objective, concrete evidence at all. The answer is a story. The professor uses the ubiquitous evolutionary narrative-technique which draws everything back to sexuality and natural selection. It is a technique that is easy to master with a bit of effort. All that is required is a little imagination.

First, the professor sets the stage by pointing back to a mythical ancient time – a time long, long ago, too far removed for anyone to prove anything one way or another with any certainty. There is no data about this time, but that is irrelevant because there are all kinds of hidden clues in the human body. The human body is regarded as the equivalent of archaeological source material:

In fact, Gibbins suspects it wasn’t that long ago that we sported a pretty impressive fur coat of our own. The evidence for this comes from goosebumps.

The professor explains that these ancient humans needed to make an impressive show to “get ahead of the pack”. The article then interjects: “Basically if you’re a very hairy man and hairy men are in, you get the girls“, which is so basic that its fundamental irrationality could evade the casual reader.

It is irrational because the inverse is manifestly untrue: “Basically if you’re not a very hairy man, and not very hairy men are in, you get the girls“. We should anticipate then that all relatively hairless men will have no difficulty whatever in finding partners in the modern world, since women are simple creatures and look at nothing else but the hirsuteness of their match. But we know that is not true. Entire populations of people are not motivated, even in their sexuality, by one, simple common feature. Even animals do not select their mates because of eye size alone or the length of their hair, or whatever.

The professor explains that our piloerection system (e.g. goosebumps) would fluff up a more hairy person so that they would look bigger and more impressive. But alas, our thick hair has gone and now all we get is the gooseflesh.

Yet earlier in the article, the professor explained that evolution is prompt at getting rid of features we do not need. Despite evolution’s famous home economy, our goosebumps reflex has survived despite all the hair they once operated going missing from the human body. The professor explains this away by suggesting that our hair has only “recently” been lost in our evolutionary history, and the goosebumps reflex still has not caught up.

It does not take a great deal of scepticism to see how bereft this explanation is. It is a fallacious begging of the question coupled with circular reasoning. The professor assumes from the outset that goosebumps are evolutionary leftovers that “originally” moved hair around. He assumes that human beings were once exceptionally hairy beings. Having made these assumptions, he strings together all the “evidence” and poof, bingle, bangle! An evolutionary answer is born.

The closest the professor gets to actually addressing the question in evolutionary terms, is to tell us that an assumed process was already underway. Why this should be so, we are never told:

At some stage while we were losing our excess body hair either women found hairy men more attractive, or men preferred non-hairy women.

So, there you go. It just is. And as all this “excess” hair (note again, the presumption is always that evolution is moving toward a targeted endpoint) was flying off the human body generation after generation, somehow ideas of attractiveness shifted as well. We are not told how. We are not told why. It just is. Somehow, amidst  a population of humans with a gorilla-like appearance, men started to find less hairy women attractive, or women found hairy men attractive. Why? How? It just is.

Hair growth and size is modulated by hormones, in particular androgens like testosterone, which kick in during puberty. As men generally have higher levels of testosterone than women they tend to have more terminal hair. Testosterone also increases the size of hair follicles on men’s faces at puberty so that they begin to grow visible beards.

Then we are then told that there are complex biochemical processes that govern the differences in human hair between men and women. Hormonal differences at puberty lead to differences in hair thickness and prevalence. So, which came first? Ultimately all evolutionary narratives devolve into chicken-and-egg scenarios, or hopeless circularity.

Did men start to find less-hairy women attractive first, and then the biochemical complexes of their bodies followed suit? Or did the biochemical complexes begin to change first, leading to women with less-hair and thus allowing for men to find them more attractive? Where did the variation come from to start this process? How do you tell the difference between a hairy and less-hairy gorilla? After all, women at some point must have been walking rug carpets too. Maybe there was intense competitive squabbling between males over the occasional near-bald specimen.

The fact that such complex processes govern hair formation suggest quite the inverse of the professor’s claims. It suggests that the differences between the genders are ancient, not recent. Indeed, our bodies would function very poorly with a heavy coat of fur or hair. The scenario works only if a person re-imagines human beings as apes, and then applies simian biological logic to the imaginary construction.

In the end, the professor’s answer is simplistic – despite its pretences to be more, with its clever erudition – and does not answer the question because it cannot. The professor’s answer is merely a sophisticated magic spell, an eminent foolishness. It denies the Creator of all life, and is an assault on His wisdom.