Monday, January 29, 2007

Blasphemous Rumours

I may be a Christian, but actually, I do think that God has a sense of humor, and when I die, I do expect to find Him laughing. (And Depeche Mode is a pretty decent band, too.)

So, I was reading that an interesting trend has exploded on the Internet scene, and I said, "Wow, that's going in the blog for sure!" What is it? Well, in case you missed it, it's the Blasphemy Challenge! The site explains it pretty well, but let me summarize: According to Mark 3:29, there is one sin that God will not forgive, known as the "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit". Inspired by this concept, the folks of The Rational Response Squad (an online atheist group, natch) are encouraging people to post videos on YouTube containing the phrase "I deny the Holy Spirit", and in return, they will send you a copy of a supposedly (not to disparage it, I simply can't vouch for it personally) very good documentary on atheism, or something like that. Jokingly, they suggest that they've set the price at $24.95 or one human soul.

Oooo. Well, the whole concept is pretty funny, and I'm pretty sure they know that. Of course if you're a person who doesn't believe that you have a soul, you're not going to be too upset about "losing" it. If you believe that the Holy Spirit doesn't exist, you're not going to be really worried about offending Him. If you'd like a copy of this movie or just want to be part of a trendy new Internet thingie, it's pretty easy to jump on board. (Actually, I was considering making a video myself, just for the free documentary; more later on why I personally would or would not do such a thing.) Actually, as I began writing this entry several days ago (I've been distracted by real-life issues), a search for "Blasphemy Challenge" on YouTube turns up over 800 videos, most of which are probably entries.

I'm not sure what the point is, though. I mean, for the guys that started it, not the responders, who have at least two clear and simple motives, but may have other more complex ones under the surface which may or may not be expressed in their videos. Why start a movement to publicly blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Is the desire to raise the profile of atheism in America? I suppose if that's the point, it's an easy and effective way to do it. But then I'd have to wonder what the point is behind that point. I've never understood the idea of so-called evangelical atheism, but maybe it's just me. If there's nothing to believe in, then who cares what you believe? I suppose it has something to do with affirming truth, but then affirming truth through more or less lying? Denying something that doesn't exist, and call it brave? I defy the power of the Genie of the Lamp! Do you consider me brave for that? It's pretty much nonsensical on some level. Maybe it is just meant to be humorous

Aside from showing personal support of a particular world-view, though, it has nothing to do with supporting reality. If I were to go on YouTube and post a video saying that I affirm the power of the Holy Spirit, does that then counteract the effect of one denial video? Putting the overall societal effect as a phenomenon of popular culture aside, there is absolutely nothing that making one of these videos will show about the Holy Spirit in particular. I mean, despite the fact of the Bible passage stating that there is the possibility of an unforgiveable sin (whether this be it or not), there is no statement that committing this sin or any other will bring God's wrath down on you in any immediate, tangible sense. Are we expecting to see the people in these videos struck by lightning, or inflicted with leprosy or something? Maybe the figuring is that there needs to be some critical mass of blasphemers to see this effect, since God seems more likely to put a good old-fashioned smiting over on a collective group rather than an individual? I don't know what it really proves.

Really, it's more compelling to see a person denying the power of the Holy Spirit if they actually believe in it. There may have been a few. Disgruntled Christians, maybe Satanists? I don't know. I wonder how the folks running this might feel about, say, a Muslim who denied the power of the Holy Spirit while testifying to the supremacy of Allah? Or a Jehovah's Witness who might be able to perform the challenge without contradicting their beliefs? (I'm not sure, that's a tough one.)

Anyway, are these people really committing the "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit"? I don't think so. There are two standard explanations for what this term really means. One of them is taken from the immediate context, and isn't the sort of thing an atheist is likely to find appealing. Jesus makes this statement about BotHS after an accusation is leveled at Him in verse 22: "And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils." Many Bible scholars have therefore taken it to mean that this particular sin is characterized specifically by making the claim that the work of Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit is actually the work of the Devil. I'd like to see a large group of atheists make such a claim; it would be entertaining.

But then I would be condemning them to Hell, right? How can that be entertaining? The other common explanation of this blasphemy is one taken from the overall context of the whole New Testament. In this view, the idea is very simply that to Blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to deny the redemptive power of Christ. This makes sense in the traditional manner of thinking of Christian salvation: A person is saved by believing in Christ, and accepting His sacrifice on his/her behalf. If you don't believe in the power of Christ, then you've already committed that blasphemy, video or no video! God doesn't forgive that sin, you simply stop it when you accept Christ.

The end result of all this is that even from a Christian point of view, these videos mean nothing. Sure, some people might find them offensive, since it is a form of blasphemy, but I think God is laughing. Ultimately, I think this will bring more publicity for Christianity, and a deeper understanding of some important Christian principles. It will also give more weight to the perceived concept that atheism is not so much a belief in itself as it is a rebellion against Christianity. Whether the atheists behind this think that is so or not, they're promoting it indirectly, and for better or worse, raising the profile of the Bible's challenge.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Moralists Anonymous

I have another post I've been working on, but I put it aside for this. This post is dedicated to one of my biggest fans, who posts quite often on my other blog, and even occasionally here: Anonymous. This guy is great, not so much that he's always the kindest comment poster or deepest thinker, but I am flattered that he takes time out from all his poetry writing, clever quipping and police informant work to drop in on my blog and give me his opinion. Lately, he had a lot to say in response to my post on slavery (scroll to the comments), but in the end, it apparently boiled down to an issue that I haven't addressed there, and probably never will, due to the nature of the blog.

The issue is the moral nature of God. Anonymous claimed, as many before him have done, that there is good reason to question whether or not God is morally right in His actions and overall interaction with humanity. For many people, this issue is raised as part of the Problem of Evil. Short version: (A) God is good. (B) God is all-powerful. (C) Evil exists. It is claimed that all three of these cannot be true, and if this is so, and rational people cannot reject (C), then (A) and/or (B) must be false, and Christianity cannot be based on truth. This is also related very closely to the problem of suffering, which is essentially the same, but with "evil" replaced by "suffering". Anyway, the point is that the nature of God becomes questionable in this light, and one must wonder what Bible believer can say about it.

I'm pretty sure I have addressed elsewhere the issue of questioning (B), but due to Anonymous' questioning, I think it might be time to shed some light on (A). Why does it sometimes appear to some that God is immoral, and how do Christians reconcile this? Why does God allow evil that seems like it would be simple enough for an all-powerful God to stop, and on top of that, why does the Bible condone things like slavery and capital punishment that many of us find morally distasteful? I'm not going to pretend to have the answer, although I may highlight my favorite theory before I wrap this up.

One of the very common ways to respond to the issue is to simply say "We have no right to judge God." This actually comes in a number of different forms, some of which blur the boundaries with other types of responses that I plan to discuss here. One form is that of the defaulted reverential approach to God, where one has simply been taught that God is Holy and wonderful and that one should never question God's goodness because...well, just because! What are you, some sort of heretic? A more abstract but actually in a way more reasoned approach is to simply point out that since God created the universe and the living creatures in it, they belong to Him, and he gets to do whatever He wants with them, and if you don't like it, go make your own universe! Maybe that's alright for some people in their own minds to take a position like this, but for someone who is not a believer to begin with, this approach will be sadly lacking in weight. Furthermore for those of us that are believers that want to have any sort of serious discussions of theology, there is a need for a reasoned approach. This isn't it.

As I said, there is a blurring of the boundaries between these different types of responses, and it may not be really clear why this is different, but another approach is to claim that morality is actually a creation of God, and since God made it, He has a certain amount of control over it. This is a strange and many-faceted idea that sometimes is approached from the other direction in a manner of speaking, when someone tries to argue that without God, there is no morality, period. The idea in such an approach is to suggest that the fact we can make moral judgments somehow verifies the existence of a higher moral standard, and that that standard can only be the almighty creator of the universe. Perhaps somebody can suggest to me a good book or essay to read on the subject because I frankly have never understood this position, and every time I've heard it, it seems to be stated as though it's self-evident. Putting that aside and getting back to the subect of God's "control" over morality, a good metaphor is that life is like a game where the rules exist in God's head. Whatever God does, He can bend the rules to fit his actions, or, more to the point due to God's omniscence, God has created the rules with loopholes for Himself. (That's an over-simplification, but I'm really convinced that the argument boils down to that in essence.) Those who don't like this argument seem to feel that it's a matter of hypocrisy that God doesn't have to obey moral law while His creation does, and there might be something to that. One thing that Christians in particular have claimed is that in the person of Jesus, God lived the life of a mortal, and in the thirty-odd years He spent on earth, He willingly subjected Himself to those laws. Whether that helps the argument or is even plausible to those who read the Gospels with a skeptical eye, who can say?

Similarly, but with some deeper theological implications, there are those who claim that God, a being of a higher order and quite different from us in many ways, does obey moral law, but has a completely different set of moral laws that apply to Him. Generally, this is hard to explain in the particular case of God, but perhaps can be illustrated in a different way. Let's talk fleas. Most people would not think it immoral of a person to buy a flea collar for their pet. The flea collar kills fleas, but we recognize that the fleas are detrimental to the health of the pet, and for the pet's sake, should be eliminated. If the pet chose to wear it or managed to remove it, either way, most people would not think such an action on the part of the pet would be immoral. Now despite the fact that the pet and the owner are unhappy with the flea, nobody would particularly feel that the flea was immoral for biting the pet (or the owner, for that matter) since that is the way it survives, and cannot be expected to do otherwise. Also, the flea has no comprehension of why it is unwanted (if indeed it is aware of it at all!)

So, as the difference between fleas, pets, and pet owners implies different moralities not just in degree, but in kind, so God exists in a state where His morality is perhaps as unrecognizable to us as ours is to a flea. And the comparison is perhaps appropriate, as many have wondered about the morality of God creating fleas in the first place. It may be that God has created fleas (and evil and suffering in many other forms) for reasons that we simply cannot fathom, not being God. I think a likely objection to this view is that if God's morality is of a kind that is not related to ours in such a fantastic manner, how can one even know that God is moral? Really, we'd just be guessing and/or taking God's word for it. While that objection is basically true, this may nonetheless be the case, like it or not.

Now, my preferred manner of viewing the morality of God is that God's morality is of a higher order than ours, but not so much of a different type. The distinction between this position and the last one is that while we often do not understand the moral aim of any choice God makes, it is not because it is intrinsically unknowable. The issue for God is that God sees the big picture. My children don't understand why it's not good to eat nothing but candy all the time. They're too young to understand nutrition. Frankly, I don't understand nutrition either, but I'm mature enough to recognize that there is a right and wrong way to choose foods, even if I don't always do it. My kids could grow up to become nutritionists or doctors, and have a much better grasp on the concept, the potential is there. Now while we can't "grow up" and become God, I think that God has knowledge that leads Him to do things that is often beyond our current grasp.

One of the biggest things that I feel that God understands better than any person alive is the concept of death. There's a bit of a trend I've seen lately, perhaps started by Steve Wells in his blog , to point out that if one goes through the Bible, we see God killing more people than Satan. I am personally of the belief that when God (and perhaps Satan as well?) kills a person, it is a different matter than when a human kills another. This is not a matter of God having the right to kill because He created life (a fairly popular response), but God having the right to kill because He and He alone, being omniscient, knows the full implications of ending any particular life at any particular time. One of these days, I'm going to have to do a post on my view of the spiritual aspect of murder, I have what I think is an interesting personal take on the matter. Why do I take away my kids' candy before dinner? Because I know something that they don't. Why does God take away a life or allow some other form of suffering? Because God knows something we don't. People can complain that God allowed a man like Hitler to exist, and then turn around and complain the He allowed a baby to die. We may not be aware that had that baby grown to adulthood, he would have become a man far worse than Hitler, and it was better that he died before setting off down the path that led to that end. Wildly theoretical, I know, but not at all impossible.

A person might object to this sort of speculation as being the same sort of grasping at straws that "blind faith" breeds, and heck, they might be right. However, I have met many atheists that have a similar view of materialistic science. If we only knew more about the universe, they assure us, then we'd have no need for God or miracles or an afterlife. Well, how do they know that? The same way that I know that God is moral. The more I investigate, the more I understand, and as yet, nothing has given me strong reason to think otherwise. And anyway, I do have faith in science in that way as well (well, short the part about not needing God), and I don't think it's wrong. I think science can tell us everything we will ever need to know about the physical universe, if we only investigate carefully. I simply feel that the physical universe is not all there is. There is God, there is the spiritual aspect of our world, and there is a morality, both of man and God that shapes it all in ways that we only partly understand.