This is a blog about the Church of Jesus Christ, and about my work in the Church this summer. For more information on my summer internship, see the first post.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Confidence in God's Energizing Presence" - 7/27/10

Scriptures: Philippians 1:3-6 & 2:12-13
(From Tuesday women's bible study)


And for the record, I'm aware that I mistakenly quoted Colossians 3:4 as though it were in Philippians :-)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One Month Left?!

I can hardly believe that July is almost over - and I have just under a month left here at St. James! The time has certainly flown by, not least of all because of how busy I've been and how very much I've been enjoying my time here. It seems as though my blog entries are becoming fewer and farther between... a couple things have contributed to this: first off, I've done more public speaking in the past few weeks than I've ever done before in my life, and I seem to be the sort of person who needs to practice and rehearse a talk a good bit before I feel it's ready.

Last Tuesday I shared a bit about my past and my experiences growing up for the 'Friends & Fellowship Luncheon'; I talked about growing up in the public schools and my faith journey up to this point (and realized on the spot that it hasn't quite been 8 years since I would say I was born again... and yet it's hard to recall what life was like before that!). In talking about my high school experiences I discussed the ministry opportunities I had been given (through Operation Snowball, which was a secular program) and how those affected me and equipped me for the work I'm beginning to do now. About three quarters of the way through the talk, once I'd gotten into talking about college life, I realized I had stopped talking about myself and had started preaching - the description of witnessing my Grandmother's death led to a fairly lengthy bit on how understanding the message of Easter subsequently changed my life and my entire outlook (and ought to change yours as well :-). People were very kind and responded with a great deal of enthusiasm, which I appreciated... almost as much as I appreciated James' (Pastor Richard's son's) little joke after I'd finished giving this talk
about myself: "You were very passionate about the subject."

On Wednesday I preached another noon eucharist sermon, which concluded the series Andy (the other intern) and I were sharing on the life of King David. The texts were 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15 (David & Bathsheba), Psalm 51, and John 7:53-8:11, all with profound insights into the nature of sin and how we must respond to it in our lives with God. That evening I also led the second session of the group study in 'Godly Singleness', which focused on 1 Corinthians 7 (in which Paul encourages his listeners to be like him - in other words, to be single).

On Tuesday I taught/led the first of a couple studies in Paul's letter to the Philippians for the women's bible study at St. James (I was assured that I didn't need to find a girly topic to talk about...). A link to the audio of that talk should be up soon, once I figure out the best way of hosting the file.

More updates (hopefully) soon to follow (and hopefully better than just summaries of what I've been doing)!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lesslie Newbigin - "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" (Part 1)

Well, here at last is the long awaited discussion of Lesslie Newbigin's book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which will be in two parts; the first, about the insights Newbigin offers into the pluralistic world the gospel faces today, and the second, about his vision for how the Church ought to be ministering in that sort of world. In comparison with my other posts, this one may prove a bit abstract (part 1 in particular). Nevertheless, join me for the ride and we'll see what insights surface.

For some time now, particularly in evangelical Christian circles, the term 'pluralism' has been thrown around a great deal, and has been recognized as one of the greatest philosophical challenges to the gospel in the modern world. Newbigin offers us critical insights into the origins of the reigning 'pluralistic' outlook, and provides much-needed clarity on the matter of how the Gospel may appropriately adapt itself to the needs of its immediate context without compromising its deepest foundations.

Newbigin begins by pointing out a crucial nuance in pluralism itself, one that is often missed by its detractors and critics. He diagnoses what I would call a 'dualistic postmodernity', which he describes thus: "The principle of pluralism is not universally accepted in our culture. It is one of the key features of our culture, and one that we shall have to examine in some depth, that we make a sharp distinction between a world of what we call 'values' and a world of what we call 'facts.' In the former world we are pluralists; values are a matter of personal choice. In the latter we are not; facts are facts, whether you like them or not. It follows that, in this culture, the Church and its preaching belong to the world of values."

This is significant - to me it seems that the mistake is commonly made of saying 'the modern era is over, everything has changed... now we are living in the postmodern world. There's no such thing as truth anymore in people's minds.' I've heard a number of Christian apologists try to do this as they ponder how to address the gospel to our society in a way that makes sense. But if we open our eyes and look at the academy, at the world of science and technology, of medicine, or even politics, we see that this is simply not the case. People in our society (at least, this is my impression) rate
very highly the claims of science, viewing it as a neutral, 'value-free' source of cold, hard facts (then they make value judgments that they suppose to be neutral as well, based on those claims). It is in the realm of religious, philisophical, or spiritual matters that we become pluralists, postmoderns. Science is seen to be valueless, and wherever values are brought in, fact goes out. Newbigin brilliantly demolishes this dichotomization of facts and values, and encourages Christians to challenge it wherever it is made.

He applies an example from the history of education in England: for centuries, it was taught in many schools to be a simple matter of public fact that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever." This was taught right alongside other facts such as the laws of gravity and geometry. Now, of course, this is no longer done.

Why? Is it because the former topic is value-based, not 'objective' like the laws of gravity or geometry? Not scientifically provable (and therefore uncertain, for what science proves must therefore be certain)? Many at this point would simply nod their heads and say 'of course', but emphatically the answer we must give is
no. What's going on here is not that a value-based system has been supplanted by a fact-based system that is truthful and objective. What has really happened is that one value-based system (Christianity) has simply been pushed out by another value-based system (scientific rationalism). Society in general has determined that things demonstrable only by the scientific method may be considered 'fact', and that everything else must be suspect and relegated to the world of 'values'. Why has society determined this? Because society believes this to be the way the world works... because societal values have established that the scientific method is the only reliable guide to reality. Pluralism is simply the inevitable outworking of this way of thinking. We can't be sure about what is true unless we have science to prove the matter for us, and so where we can't be sure, we democratize truth and make it 'true' at the individual level.

This is deeply problematic when one realizes that science itself rests on a system of values that are not scientifically demonstrable. Newbigin writes, "The whole work of modern science rests on faith-commitments which cannot themselves be demonstrated by the methods of science. This has been frequently pointed out and it is only necessary to refer briefly to it. The development of science as we know it would have been impossible without two
beliefs: that the universe is rational and that it is contingent" (neither of these things, of course, is scientifically demonstrable). Further assumptions get added to these among many scientists; one of the most destructive is this: the scientific method is the only viable means of gaining knowledge about reality (to which I simply will say, 'prove it...scientifically'). This analysis rests upon basic principles of epistemology that have been understood for quite a long time, but are typically ignored in mainstream society - that is, that all knowing proceeds from some basis in believing. This is every bit as true of science as it is of philosophy or religion. Presuppositions that cannot be proven undergird every single thing a human being will say, do, or think.

All of this is not to denigrate science or argue that it is useless to us - quite the contrary! The scientific method has proven its usefulness, but we shouldn't act as though science is not also based on an intuitive leap from what we believe about the world to how we go about understanding the world. Newbigin's purpose is not to reject science, but is simply to point out that this dichotomy we've engineered between what is
factual and what is value-based is itself based on a set of beliefs and values that cannot be proven - our confidence in the scientific method can never be proven, for in order to prove it we would be using the very (scientific) principles that we are seeking to prove. We simply take it for granted that the only 'knowable' things are those which science can demonstrate. The Christian response here is not to say, 'Well of course we can only know what science can prove, but that's okay, because what we believe is scientifically demonstrable!' Rather, our response is, 'No... we can know more about the universe than just what science reveals to us. We can also know what God reveals to us.' It can't be proven, of course... but as we see with the scientific method, that shouldn't be a problem.

Newbigin provides further insights as he traces out the nuances of postmodern pluralism. If everything we say or think is based on dogma - certain basic assumptions about the world around us - it follows that the pluralist is being every bit as absolute as the Christian or the scientist. Whenever a pluralist tries to say, 'All truth is relative; what's true for you is true for you, as anyone's truth is true for himself; but that doensn't mean it's true for me,' what he is in effect doing is making a truth claim, one that is every bit as dogmatic as the claims of those (particularly Christians) whom he wishes to contradict.

Our task as Christian apologists living in a pluralistic age, then, is to expose the hypocrisy inherent in pluralism, to unmask its dogmatism by putting our finger on pluralism's fundamental likeness to all that it seeks to criticize. To those who say 'Everyone's truth is true for himself,' we must reply, 'Do you really think that's true?' To those who say 'There are no absolutes,' we must reply, 'Absolutely none?' To those who say 'We can't really know anything,' we must reply, 'How do you know that?' By asking them their own questions we not only show the claim of pluralism (that it transcends all truth claims) to be simply laughable, but also expose the fact that the only difference between Christianity and pluralism is that pluralism denies the fact that it is dogmatic about the way the world works (for to do so would overthrow everything it is trying to accomplish).

The simple reality is that we cannot escape truth, meaning, and values, no matter how far we withdraw or retreat; nor can we continue indefinitely to hold them apart from 'fact'. The dichotomy we have created in our society between what is factual and what is 'true' is nothing more or less than a pestilential cultural laziness, too squeamish to believe that anyone in the world might be wrong, and therefore driven to the silly conclusion that everyone must therefore be right, no matter how absurd this may seem. Perhaps that is the truth, and I'm just wrong. But if that is the truth, let's not be so foolish as to try and deny that, like I said, it is the truth.

This concludes the first part of our look at Newbigin's ideas, which will be followed (hopefully soon) with a discussion of how these insights ought to translate into the practice and mission of the church in our culture. Until then, I would leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Lesslie's book:

"The curiosity which is always seeking to discover more seems to be one of the necessary conditions of life. But seeking is only serious if the seeker is following some clue, has some intuition of what it is that he seeks, and is willing to commit himself or herself to following that clue, that intuition. Merely wandering around in a clueless twilight is not seeking. The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about 'what is true for me' is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is a mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Weeks 3 & 4

Time is flying! I find it hard to believe that in just one more week the internship will be half over. A lot has happened since my last post, much of it continuing along the lines of what I had been doing before - more counseling, another sermon, things of that nature. I also had the opportunity to help lead services at two nursing homes these past two weeks, the first with a group of people who are at the lowest level of coherency in comparison with the other nursing homes we visit. A few days ago we went to another that was easier in terms of interaction and getting to know the people.

I learned quite a lot in both cases. It seems that there is a tendency to view pastoral care for the elderly and infirm as something done out of politeness, almost as a 'Hey, thanks for going to church all your life, now I'll come pray for you for a minute or two' that becomes an afterthought. But meeting the people at these nursing homes, I felt powerfully reminded of the fact that these people's lives are every bit as valuable as anyone else's (contrary to the despicable insistence of some in society, who view them as a burden), and they need the continual, renewing presence of the gospel in their lives too. I was especially astonished at the first nursing home to see someone who had left the church when he was young make a faith commitment and accept Jesus once again (this fellow was more lucid than the others we met at the nursing home). I just wonder how many people in the pastoral ministry actually view nursing and retirement home ministry as an
evangelistic effort - I suspect most don't, which is unfortunate, because this is precisely the point in people's lives at which the future - particularly the eternal future - seems much more palpable, at which the recognition comes that there are fewer days ahead than there are behind, and questions of a person's hope in death become increasingly urgent. Beyond this, these people need so badly to have someone encourage and support them, to pray for them and speak words of comfort, because life for many of them has become a constant source of pain and struggle. The look of joy, peace, and relief I saw on the faces of some of them simply to have someone pray for their particular needs and ask God's blessing for them, was unforgettable.

In other news, we celebrated the fourth of July, Newport Beach-style, which was pretty memorable. There was a party at the home of one of the parishioners with a great view of the bay and the city, and we could see at least four separate fireworks shows all going on at the same time. Last week Wednesday was also the conclusion of the church's Alpha Course, and I was happy to see a lot of phone numbers and email addresses being exchanged, people promising to keep meeting and spending time together, and to start going to church! Two of my new friends from my table have been coming as well, and it's been a great joy to see what God is doing in their lives.

There will be a few more posts very soon on a few more of the things I've been doing - specifically, a recent talk I gave on 5-point Calvinism to a bible study small group and my thoughts on an excellent book by Lesslie Newbigin,
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. That's all for now!