What is a Challenge for God?

I read a book a couple of years ago called God’s Debris. It was a free online book by Scott Adams. In it, the main character debates what God would want to do. He reasoned that an omnipotent God would be quite bored by almost everything, since there would be no challenge. Thus, the character concluded, the only real challenge to God would be to see if he could destroy himself. The character posits that God did and that’s what the Big Bang was: God blowing himself up. Everything in the universe is “God’s debris” and as part of the divine essence, we are all gradually coalescing back into his consciousness.

cosmic dewdrops

This is an unrelated image, but it looks cool. Source

Now, the book is just a thought experiment. The author (most likely) isn’t suggesting that this is really what happened, but it got me thinking: what is God’s motivation? As an omnipotent God, what would interest him? One answer is that God has created the universe so that his creation can give glory back to him. That, of course, isn’t a challenge. God created angels, too, to give him praise and worship him for eternity. So what is a challenge to God?

I don’t think God is interested in destroying himself, but it occurred to me that the real challenge for God is to create something that’s uncreatable. In fact, that is what he is doing right now, and Christians are uncreatable beings in the middle of the process.

It is paradoxical to say that you can create something instantaneously which requires a process. We, as humans can build a car, but we cannot build a tree. That is something that requires a specific, time-consuming process. In the same way, a woman can give birth to a baby (and even that is a process), but not a mature adult. That would be a paradox, since a mature adult is not a product of an act of creation; he or she is the result of a process over many years.

In the same way, God cannot simply create a being who has chosen Him of their own free will, who has grown to know Him and love Him over time. It is a long, sometimes painful process and we are in the midst of that process. To find the endpoint of that process, the uncreatable being, the Bible says that we will be perfected, to be like Christ. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, the ultimate conclusion of this process of being a Christian is to become “a little Christ”, though not on our own merits but only through him.

Why I Have No Problem with Evolution

First of all, let me say that I do not have a strong opinion about the veracity of biological evolution. I am not a biologist and I have no way to know whether what scientists claim is true or not. However, I do believe in objective truth and if the vast majority of scientists think that evolution is incontrovertible, then I feel that it is important to at least consider it.

What I want to do here is talk about the concept of evolution. When we talk about evolution, we mean a gradual change over time, specifically from simpler forms developing into more complex forms. Not only is this process not contrary to God’s way of doing things, it is way he almost always does things. In the next sections, unless I state otherwise, this gradual change from simple to complex is what I am referring to by evolution, not specifically the biological evolution of species.

Evolution in the Bible

The first example of evolution in the Bible is right at the beginning, in Genesis 1. God creates everything in seven days, starting with light, the most elementary aspect of nature. From there, each day progresses to more and more complex things, from water and air, to dry land, then plants, then fish and birds, then other animals and people. I think it is likely that each “day” represents a much longer period of time, but even if you believe that this was all accomplished in seven 24-hour periods, you still have to ask yourself why it took seven days at all. Why would God need to take a week to create the world when he could theoretically create it, fully formed, in a single moment? There is no explanation except that that is how he chose to do it, creating the world progressively in stages from simple to more complex.

The next example of evolution in the Bible is the entire Bible itself. The Bible is a complex book and has a lot of parts, but it is first and foremost a history of how people become separated from God and how God reestablishes the relationship. To summarize the Bible in a few sentences:

  1. God creates humans
  2. Humans sin against God and become separate from him
  3. God establishes the Israelites and gives them the Law to teach them the nature of sin, the concept of holiness or separateness (something being either one thing or another), and how to atone when they do sin
  4. God sends Jesus to earth to be the perfect fulfillment of the law, the last sacrifice that could finally do what all the animal sacrifices prescribed in the law couldn’t
  5. God sends the Holy Spirit to continue the work that Jesus started, establishing the church on Earth.

You could write a library of books (and people have) about those five points but the point is that there was a process that took a long time, thousands of years between the Garden of Eden and Jesus coming. The question someone could ask is why? Why take all that time and let the world languish in pain and ignorance for so long? Why didn’t Jesus appear in the Garden the day after Adam and Eve sinned for the first time and get things back on track right away.

Again, that is apparently not how God does things. God always works through a process over time and—to use a term from education—scaffolds things, building on a foundation of simple understanding to lead to more complex concepts. Concepts like sin, sacrifice, and grace have little meaning without the context of history behind them.

Some Objections

These are only a few examples of this evolutionary process, but at this point, let’s get back to the sticking point, which is that the idea of biological evolution contradicts the creation story in Genesis, specifically the part with humans. After all, Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). This clashes with the idea of humans developing slowly over millions of years. It is a seemingly irreconcilable problem and this is why many Christians cannot accept the idea of evolution, all other issues aside.

An Attempt at Reconciliation

The Bible is filled with poetic language and metaphors. In fact, metaphors are the only way to convey concepts outside the human experience into human language. Some of the language in Genesis could easily be a poetical telling of the creation story. For instance, you can read the Genesis 2:7 verse as God taking on a physical form, making a human shape out of dirt and then literally breathing into the figures nose and granting it life. Or this could be a poetical way of saying that God created humans.

Another verse that seems like it is probably poetical is where God creates Eve from Adam’s rib. After all, in Genesis 1: 27, it says “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NIV). It seems like males and females were created at the same time, which would make sense since that was assumedly the same with all other species on earth.

One explanation is that God used evolution to create the world, then chose Adam and Eve to introduce himself to. In this scenario, there are many primitive peoples living on earth and God takes Adam and Eve and gives them the Garden of Eden and talks to them and makes first contact with the human race.

This explanation does not reconcile everything, but does help with a few issues in the Bible. For instance, in Genesis 4:14, after Cain has killed Abel, he says, “…I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (NIV). He could be thinking ahead to the future, but if there are really only 3 people on Earth at this point, it would seem like he doesn’t have any immediate worries. Then it mentions his wife three verses later. While we could assume this is his sister, it doesn’t mention Adam and Eve having any other children. The real moment that gives me pause in the next sentence, in the second half of Genesis 4:17. “Cain was then building a city and he named it after his son Enoch.” Why would you build a city if there are less than 10 people in the entire world?” There could be lots of explanations for these things, but it would also fit well if there were already thousands of other people in the world at this time.

Some Final Thoughts

With all this being said, I am still neutral on the idea of evolution. I don’t see it being irreconcilable with my beliefs but it doesn’t affect my daily life one way or the other, so I feel like I can remain open-minded. However, there are two things that might help those Christians who find the idea of evolution to be unsettling and against what they have always believed.

The first is a tautology that I have always found comforting, which is “Whatever happened, happened.” In other words, history and reality are fixed and won’t change because of what we believe or because science makes some new discovery. I find this comforting because ultimately, I think Christians should be interested in truth since we believe God is interested in truth. If evolution is true, then it is from God and is something we should accept, and if not, then it will fall by the wayside as all misconceptions eventually do.

As well, as Christians we need to be quite sure in our own minds what our faith is based on. As the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus Christ, my righteousness.” Jesus is the foundation of Christianity and should be the only basis for our faith. What is very dangerous is to let our faith rest on a rigid conglomeration of beliefs about the world mixed with the cultural norms we grew up with. The danger is that once one thing cracks or one belief is found to be untrue, the person’s entire belief structure can crumble. This unanalyzed, unreinforced rigidity of belief is probably why so many Christian teens backslide once they go to university and aspects of their belief system are challenged.

I once saw a video on YouTube by a teenager who tied his Christian faith to the earth being flat. I grieved for that boy since he was encumbering the saving power of Jesus’ love and sacrifice with something that was not only extraneous but also untrue.

I do not know if evolution is true or not, but what I do know is that I do not want to tie my faith in Christ to that fact. While it is an important question, it is not the most important question.

A Girl Named Grace

Girl Named Grace

I know a girl named Grace
She drops by just when I need her
I don’t deserve her but she doesn’t care
She brings me treats from far away
Favorite foods I’ve never known

I know a girl named Grace
She found me standing by the road
Lost and hopeless
She brought me home, coaxed me to health
And gave me hope again

I know a girl named Grace
Who joys in the sunshine and the rains
And my feeble attempts to give back
She drops by just when I need her
And God love her for it

The Sociopath Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes an action wrong. I think we would all agree murder is wrong since it deprives someone of their life and deprives the people around that person as well. Theft deprives a person of property they worked to obtain; assault causes them physical and emotional pain. There is a clear moral basis to say these are wrong.

Consider a thought experiment for a minute. Imagine there is a sociopath who lures a person into his house, restrains him and injects him with a cocktail of drugs that cause him excruciating physical pain and mental agony. Then, at the end of the day he gives him another drug that completely erases the memory of that day and lets him go. All the drugs are designed to be gone from his system within twelve hours. For good measure, the sociopath gives himself the same drug, completely erasing his own memory of that day as well.

Did the sociopath do anything wrong?

The immediate answer that comes to mind is, yes, of course. Clearly torture is wrong. But why is it wrong in this situation? The man has absolutely no lasting effects from the torture, no memory or psychological scars from it and no one else knows about it, including the person who inflicted it. It was wrong while it was happening, since the prisoner was suffering intensely, but afterwards it has been totally erased from the collective minds of the human race, as if it had never existed. You could argue the sociopath did wrong by depriving the victim of his freedom for a day, but that would be true even if he kidnapped him and made him play Uno for a day. I’m talking specifically of the torture aspect.

The point I’m try to get at is if morality is dependent on an observer having knowledge of it or if it is an absolute, outside of any observation (by observer, I mean someone with knowledge, either directly or indirectly.) It’s kind of the equivalent of the question of if a tree falling in the forest makes a noise when no one is around to hear it.

My belief is that morality has to be dependent on an observer because morality outside of sentient minds has no meaning. However, I believe it is also an absolute since God is the prime observer of all reality. He sees everything and even if no one else sees something or remembers it, God sees it and can judge it on its merits. He is outside of time and so has access to the past, present and future at once.

I think every normal person, no matter what their beliefs, would agree that torture is wrong. What I’ve been pondering is if there is a basis for saying something is wrong if there is no observer or memory of it, in a belief system without God, a prime observer.

What do you think about this? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

Creation from Nothing

It may seem like a paradox to think that God created the universe from nothing, as Christians contend. After all, where did all the matter and energy we’re made up of come from? Where was it before? It’s hard to wrap our minds around.

The Bible says that we were made in God’s image and as such, we are also creators. In fact, we create things from nothing all the time. Let me give you two examples.

black_dragon_attack_2

Copyright el-grimlock

In the picture above, there is a dragon. If I asked what the picture is made of, the answer would be different colored pixels on your screen, although originally it might have been graphite and ink. However, while the picture is made of pixels, the dragon and other things in the picture are not. They are made of muscle, bone, metal, etc., maybe even things we could never find in our own world, like mithril. The picture is in our world, but the things in the picture are not (probably for the best). The artist has created a window to a world that had not existed before, using pen and paper, or pixels on the computer to create an actual, flying, fire-breathing dragon out of nothing, which exists in its own world.

Another way to create is through language. Read the next sentence:

“The girl sat at the edge of the well and looked down into the swirling darkness, resisting the tug of its grasping tendrils on her legs.”

With this one sentence, we have a window into a world that did not exist before I wrote it. The sentence is made of words, but the world is not. The girl is flesh and blood, the well is made of stone (most likely). Where was this flesh and stone and other matter that makes up her world before I wrote the sentence? It was created from nothing as I wrote.

This might seem like a cop-out. It’s not real, you might say and while I would contend that it’s all real for that girl sitting by the well, it is true that all of these worlds that we create exist only within our minds. The difference between these and God creating the universe is that he has the power to make it real and also to set us free from himself. When I write a story, characters make their own decisions and have their own thoughts, but they cannot do anything I don’t want them to do. They don’t know I exist, but I am like a puppet master making them think and do the things they do. They cannot do anything unless I have them do it.

However, I believe God has given us  free will to do what he wants us to or to do our own thing. He has also given us the capacity to create things of our own, small craftsmen working away under the loving eye of the Master Craftsman himself.

Finding God’s Perspective

This is the text of a sermon I gave at our church this past Sunday.

misty mountains2

The mountains near Jeonju, Korea. Copyright David Stewart

I came to Iowa for the first time about five years ago, when I had my job interview at the university here. Since then, my wife and I have lived in Iowa for almost five years and I’ve grown to love it here. There are a lot of great things about Iowa: friendly people, beautiful sunset, the ability to buy cheese curds practically everywhere. There are many wonderful things about Iowa but there is one thing it is missing that I cannot get used to, and that is mountains.

Before coming to Iowa, we lived in South Korea for nine years. As you may know, Korea is about 75% mountains and there is nowhere in the country you can go where you cannot see mountains. Jeonju, the city where we lived was bordered on two sides with mountains and there were two mountains higher than the others. Moaksan, the tallest one stood alone. That was the most famous one, the one that was a provincial park and that everyone knew about. The second tallest was called Goduksan. It was surrounded by lower peaks so that when you were down in the city, you couldn’t tell it was taller than the ones near it. Sometimes you couldn’t see it at all. However, if you went north of the city and climbed up into the mountains, looking across the city, there was no comparison. The two tallest mountains stood out clearly above the others. So what changed? Not the mountains or the city. The only thing that changed was me and my position. My perspective on them.

Unfortunately, as humans our perspective is necessarily limited by time and space, our senses and our powers of comprehension. We are like explorers in a jungle, seeing only what is right around us. Yet, even so, we know that this is not absolute truth. Only God can see things in perfect truth, as they truly are and the closer that we come to God’s perspective, the closer we come to seeing reality.

We’ll get there eventually, although not in this lifetime. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NIV).

There are two times when I think that having a godly perspective is particularly important and when it can be especially difficult to. These are when things are going great and when they are going terribly.

When things are going right                

It is an interesting coincidence that from earth, the sun and moon look to be about the same size, so that during an eclipse, the moon can actually perfectly block out the sun. The ancients probably thought that they were the same size, but we know now that the sun is actually much larger than the moon. How much larger? If the sun was the width of Iowa, 300 miles across from Dubuque to Sioux City, the moon would stretch from the Fayette post office down to the car wash, a little more than half a mile. So why do they look the same size? The moon is so much closer to us than the sun. Anything can block out the sun if it’s close enough to us: a tree, our hand, even a coin.

In the same way, anything can come between us and God if we hold it close enough to us. We usually think about sin keeping us from God, and that’s definitely true, but anything can come between us and God. There are many good things in our lives that are blessings: our jobs, families, friends, hobbies, sports, etc. All of these things are inherently good things, things God has given us. The problem is only where we place them in our lives.

I know I have the temptation sometimes to just want comfort. My dream is to have a job I love, in a nice house with kids and go on interesting vacations and eat good food. To have friends. To have a good life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire, and these are all good things, but we must remember that all this is temporary. The Earth is not our home; we’re just passing through.

Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).

One of the central characters in the New Testament is Paul. He has one of the best resumes for someone in that time. Not only was he was a Jew, meaning he was a member of God’s chosen people, but he was born a Jew and was the child of Jews. He was also a Pharisee, one of the religious elite and on top of all that, he was a Roman citizen. This was huge in the time when Rome ruled all the lands around Israel and it gave Paul a lot of privileges that other Jews did not have.

Nevertheless, this is what Paul says of all this: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

Think about that. In comparison with what he found in Jesus, all the honors and accolades that he had received were like garbage. Those are strong words, like comparing a Nobel Prize to a 3rd grade participation ribbon in your least favorite sport. He didn’t say they were garbage, but in comparison, they might as well be. That is keeping things in God’s perspective.

When things are going wrong

One of the worst days possible was recorded in the Old Testament in Job 1. At the beginning of the chapter, Job has everything a person back then could want. He had huge herds of animals, which equated wealth, he had trading caravans to get more wealth, he had many children who got along and hung out together. But then at the end of the chapter, all that is wiped out. What’s more, a while later, he is stricken with boils, meaning even his health is taken away.

The book of Job is mostly a conversation between Job and his friends where they say he must have something bad to deserve this and Job insisting he doesn’t deserve it and demanding God tell him if he did anything to deserve this

God finally responds at the end of the book in an epic couple of chapters calling out Job. As an example, in Job 38:4-5, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”

What God is very bluntly saying is that there is no way that Job can understand everything that’s going on from his very limited perspective compared to the perspective of God, who set the whole universe in motion. He is the only one who sees the whole picture.

Job’s friends were arguing that if something that bad happened to Job, he must have done something very bad to deserve it. That is the idea of karma: you do good and good happens to you, and vice versa. This is sometimes the case, but the world does not always have such a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, there is a fact that we all know but don’t always like to acknowledge: life is not fair.

Personally, I don’t think every bad thing that happens is part of God’s plan. God can use anything that happens, he is always with us and always loves us, and nothing can throw him for a loop. However, the world is a broken, chaotic, messy place, and I don’t believe he nurtures every cancer cell and guides every tornado on its path. Sometimes bad things just happen because of the world we live in. At least that’s what I believe.

We all know examples of terrible things that have happened to wonderful people who did not at all deserve what they got and it’s easy to be angry at God and question why these things happen. Not I, nor any other person can know why bad things happen to good people, but what I know is that there is more to existence than our mortal lives and in time, justice will be done.

Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (NIV).

Living in this life is like watching half an action movie. We watch up the point where the hero is captured, everyone hates him, and the villain is winning. We might be tempted to pound the table and shout, “It’s not fair! This is a terrible movie!” But God says, “Just wait. It isn’t over. Watch until the end.”

Just as it is hard to imagine the actual size of the sun compared to the moon, there is no way to comprehend God’s perspective of events compared to our own. All of human history is merely the first letter of the first word on the first page of the story God that sees (or more likely, one buried deep inside the book.) This life is important; it matters, but it’s not everything by a long shot.

In Conclusion

So how do we keep a right perspective, God’s perspective, on things? We should enjoy the good things in life and through God’s grace endure the bad things that happen. We can’t ignore them and shouldn’t, but they can’t be our focus.

There is a great hymn whose chorus goes:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

If we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will lead us deeper into his Truth, through both good and bad.

Culture and Christianity

Earth in hands

Source: TCA

Culture is like water to a fish: it is all around us but because it is so pervasive, it is often difficult to analyze. Culture is involved in every aspect of life, including religion. There are some religions that might be identified with one culture, but Christianity is a global religion, so it takes on a different flavor with every culture.

I have lived in three countries in my life: Canada, the United States, and South Korea. Canada is my home country and the one where I grew up, so I see the United States and Korea as my adopted countries. There are aspects of the cultures of each that I have seen in Christianity in those countries, aspects that the people there probably don’t even consider since it’s part of their culture. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. For each, it stems from some part of their culture that they consider important.

The United States: Patriotism

Not only are Americans quite patriotic, but American Christians closely link their patriotism with their faith. They’re not the only country to do this, but it is a very strong trend here. Do a Google search for “God and country” and you will find thousands of images of the Bible or a cross with an American flag. For American Christians, being a Christian is part of what it means to be a good American. They see America as a Christian country. There is an American flag in every church.

I think everyone should be patriotic towards their country, and I am very patriotic towards Canada. However, I have never felt a connection between my love of country and my love of God and in my experience, this is not a thing for Christians in other countries. I have always been uncomfortable with having a national flag in church. I understand where Americans are coming from, but here is my thinking:

As Christians, we belong to a group of people with ties that supersede national ties. Nations often go to war, making the people of those countries enemies, but Christians should never enemies of each other, even when they must act like it (for instance, the Christians on both sides in multiple European wars.) In my mind, the church is a place beyond nation and free of nationality, just as it is free of political systems and economic systems. There are Christians in other countries that do not like the United States, just as Americans might not like their country. But in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

South Korea: Confucianism

Confucianism is a system of values and ethics, and not necessarily a religion. It is a way of promoting social harmony through strict hierarchy, so that everyone knows where they belong in a group. For example, in a family the father is at the top, then the mother and then the children. Titles are very important and honoring people who deserve respect.

In Korea, this system permeates every aspect of the culture from the grammar of the language on up. Christianity is very big widespread in Korea and the Confucianist aspects of the culture are present in the church as much as anywhere else in society.

On the positive side, the Korean church gets everyone involved. Even as a non-Korean, I was assigned to a small group in the church after only coming a short time. Each group was assigned tasks on a rotating basis, such as preparing lunch after church. Korean society is very communal and includes everyone.

On the negative side, from my perspective, the Korean church is very stratified with many different levels of deacons and pastors. The head pastor is like the father of the church and has much more power than a pastor in a Western church. Korean Christians generally can’t say no to the pastor and if he wants you, for example, to go to 5:00 am prayer meeting, then you have to. One stark example of this difference in culture was when I was in Korea and on a trip with a busload of people from the church. The bus had a karaoke system and the Korean deacon wanted people to sing. No one really wanted to, so he started choosing people. The Koreans he chose did it, reluctantly. The non-Koreans he asked simply refused. Korean Christians emphasize submitting to authority while Western Christians emphasize freedom in Christ.

In conclusion

Every culture has good and bad aspects of it although value judgments are subjective. After all, each of us can only evaluate culture through the lens of our own cultural upbringing. The points I bring up here might be handled very differently by someone from another culture and what I think is positive, they might think is negative and vice versa. What is important to remember when approaching cultural differences in Christianity is that while cultural differences cannot be avoided, they are not what is most important. It is very easy to concentrate on what is different since that is often what is most obvious, but the similarities are what are most important and what binds us all together in the end.