Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Happens After Death?

Death is one of the most persistent problems faced by us human beings--and by the religions of the world. Of central concern is what happens to individuals when they die.

There are many ways the central questions of what happens after death can be answered. Three such possibilities are: (1) "Eternal life" in full fellowship with God and other people--a belief that in Christianity is tied to the concept of resurrection, however that might be understood. (2) Reincarnation--the "transmigration" of the soul after death into another form of existence, human or otherwise. (3) Complete cessation of existence--except for the memories that linger in the minds of family, friends, and acquaintances.

It is obvious, I think, that all three of these possibilities can't possibly be true. It is possible that all three are wrong and that the truth of what happens after death is something distinctly different from all three. If someone adopts any one of the three possibilities given above, though, logically that means the rejection of the other two.

I bring this topic up in order to make a point about relativism or religious pluralism. As I indicated in my posting on September 5, when there are conflicting truth claims (as there often are), one possible response is to say that both (or all) are (somehow) true and there is no need to choose between them. This kind of thinking is usually linked to the idea of relativism, the concept that truth depends on the social location and philosophical perspective of any given person.

But does relativism work for a concrete question, such as about what happens after death? Could it possibly be true that if a Christian believes in conscious, personal life after death that will be what he or she will experience whereas if Buddhists believes in reincarnation, that is what they will experience? That seems highly unlikely. While perceptions of reality may, and do, vary greatly, reality is not shaped by perceptions.

Some may say that we don't know what happens after death, so we shouldn't make any strong statements about the subject and just let everyone believe what they will. Of course it is true that we don't know with absolute certainty, and of course people should be free to believe whatever they think is right.

But what is the basis of the Christian belief in eternal life? And what are the consequences of such a belief in comparison with the other two mentioned? Don't the basis and the consequences make the Christian view worth witnessing to and commending to other people, regardless of what position they might hold?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What About Universal Health Care?

In my post on September 14, I made reference to the problem of universal health care, which is so much in the news nowadays. In response, I received the following comments (among others).

One Thinking Friend (TF) wrote (in an e-mail): "I do not think bringing politics into the equation is beneficial. It is too corrupting of both Spiritual and Religion."

MPH said in his posted comments, "It's clear that our society needs health care reform, but not just any health care reform will do. Who could question that caring for the poor is of paramount import, recognized intuitively by even the most callous in our society; and, explicitly stated in the words of Jesus as preserved by the Evangelists. But how to do it so that it is broadly effective and just is a matter demanding great contemplation."

Another TF sent me an e-mail in which he wrote, in part: "A very bright Libertarian friend of mine distinguishes between voluntary philanthropy (as, for example, when I am moved for the need of the hungry, and give to Bread for the World) and coerced philanthropy (as in government programs to care for the needy). In the latter case, we generously give away a little of our money. We also coerce others to pay taxes to support the philanthropic need. He concludes that the two types of philanthropy are not the same, even though they both involve needy people and the transfer of money from the haves to the have-nots. His other conclusion: 'Feel free to give away your own money to the needy. Don't feel free to give away my money to help the needy (or, for that matter, most other government programs).'"

In response to the above, let me just make some brief comments: (1) I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state--but not in the separation of faith and politics (as Jim Wallis often says). I believe our Christian faith should be reflected in the public policies we support (or do not support) and the politicians we vote for--and that our support of public policy or politicians should always be based upon our faith.

(2) It seems to me that there are many who do not think in terms of helping the poor in our society. ("The poor need to get to work and take care of themselves.") That is the impression I get from listening to "talk radio" (on a very limited basis; I can't take much of it at a time), and that is the impression I got from watching some of the "March on Washington" sponsored by the Tea Party Movement. (Look at their website and see if you can find any concern for the poor and uninsured people in our society.) I agree that not just any plan is OK--but this is an issue that has been pending for more than forty years now, and something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

(3) Many Libertarian groups seem to be supporters of the Tea Party movement, and my TF's "very bright" friend possibly is a supporter of that movement. I am a big supporter of liberty, especially when it comes to freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. But I am not convinced that not paying taxes for the public good is a matter of liberty as much as it is a matter of selfishness. Private philanthropy--or the work of churches and other religious institutions--will never be sufficient to take care of all the needs in society. Shouldn't a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" do all it can to provide health care for those who do not have it and cannot afford it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why Reject Absolutism?

I received some strong comments regarding my posting about relativism, so I feel the need to address that issue further--but from the opposite side. What I wrote on September 11 stands. But in addition to my rejecting relativism, I need to make it clear that I also reject absolutism.

In my book "Fed Up with Fundamentalism" (FUF) I spoke out rather strongly about absolutism--and those words stand, too. "Arrogance and Certainty" is a section in "The Problem with Fundamentalism," the fourth chapter in FUF. I wrote (and still believe): "If people are absolutely certain that they are correct in their most basic beliefs and that those who disagree with them are completely wrong, these people are usually seen as being arrogant as well as intolerant" (p. 89). Some who read what I wrote in "Why Reject Relativism?" may have concluded that I am arrogant and intolerant.

But I also said this in FUF: "Just as most, if not all, fundamentalists do, I affirm the concept of absolute truth, and I firmly believe that Jesus is 'the truth' and 'the way' to Absolute Truth, which is found in the triune God. But this must be recognized as a belief to be affirmed, elucidated, and witnessed to, not as a 'fact' that makes it possible for me to be 'judge and jury' for all opposing viewpoints" (p. 91).

In other words--and perhaps I should have said this more clearly in FUF--I reject absolutism as well as relativism. (In fact, I reject most "isms" and basically agree with whomever said that all isms are contrary to the Gospel.) I condemn all of the atrocities, such as against indigenous people, that have been done by those who were absolutists--although I think that those atrocities were committed primarily because of power, greed, and selfishness rather than because of some philosophical (or theological) position.

Still, absolutism can be used to justify aggression and oppression of others--and people with power have done so through the centuries. But I do not and will not condone violence, including any suppression or violation of religious freedom, and I resolutely reject any type of absolutism that fosters violence, oppresses people, or denies the religious freedom of individuals or groups.

But, as I wrote before, I reject relativism also—and that rejection is partly because of the logical contradiction of any declaration that relativism is true. I agree with Dr. Braaten, who wrote in an e-mail, "I like the statement, 'There are no absolutes, and that is absolutely true.'" On a deeper level, I reject relativism partly because of its link to religious pluralism, which tends to oppose and criticize Christian missionary work overseas--and I will no doubt write about that matter before long.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Less Religious and More Spiritual?

“Am I becoming less religious and more spiritual?” That question, one of ten in the “spiritual audit” devised by Fred Smith ("Leadership Journal," Winter 1998), has been posed the last two weeks to those of us who attend the Wednesday evening adult studies at Second Baptist Church. The question implies, of course, that we should be more spiritual and less religious.

How we think about that question naturally depends upon the way we define religious and spiritual. But, as those you who know me might guess, I think most of us probably need to become both more religious and more spiritual. But maybe some people even need to become less spiritual and more religious. Again, it depends on definitions.

I have often had critical things to say about religion—and there is much done in the name of religion that needs to be criticized. But if we look at the words of James 1:27, we find that pure religion means, among other things, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (NRSV), that is, to care for those who are the neediest and most vulnerable in the world around us.

It is easy to criticize religion at its worst—but that is “contaminated” religion, not the pure religion James talks about. On the other hand, being spiritual can be, and often is, very individualistic—the inner delight of fellowship with God (or the Ultimate or the Absolute, for those who do not wish to use religious terms). Even that spirituality can, and surely does at times, lead to concern and care for others. But it can also be skewed into an inner ecstasy that remains quite private.

Those who have pure religion, in the sense defined by James, engage in, or at least support and encourage, action for the well-being of needy people. What would that mean in our society today? Among other things, wouldn’t it surely mean supporting health-care coverage for the 45,000,000 Americans who currently do not have it—and maybe even some concern for the desperate “aliens” who come to this country illegally?

It seems to me that those who oppose universal health-care and fear that some “illegal aliens” might possibly get some free medical help—including the Congressman who shouted “You lie!” when the President was addressing this most serious situation--are in need of some serious soul-searching, especially if they consider themselves spiritual and/or religious.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why Reject Relativism?

In my previous posting I said some negative things about relativism, and now I am writing more about why I think relativism is objectionable and should be rejected.

First, a definition of the term: Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth and that, consequently, all truth is relative to the culture or the religion to which a person or group belongs. I take this as more of metaphysical statement than an epistemological one; that is, it refers primarily to the nature of reality not to the way one knows what is real. That distinction is important, because I do not think that one can be absolutely sure he or she knows the absolute truth--and I will be addressing that problem in a latter posting.

There certainly is relativity apparent in the way reality is understood. The way any of us view the world is largely dependent upon the culture or the religion to which we belong, that is, upon the community, large or small, which has formed the "plausibility structure" which informs our judgments.

But while affirming epistemological relativity, I reject the idea of pluralism that renounces the making of value judgments among different cultural or religious views because since all are relative all are (potentially) of equal validity. According to metaphysical relativism, there is no absolute Truth that people or groups just understand to varying degrees or in diverse ways.

Relativism is a growing phenomenon in the contemporary world. It is a central tenet of the postmodern worldview. But is it compatible with Christianity--at least Christianity as it has been generally understood and believed for the last two thousand years? I think not.

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," it has been said (by Terullian, who died around 220 A.D.). But if through the centuries Christians had embraced relativism, there would have been no (or at least very few) martyrs. People don't willingly die for relative truths. If they had been relativists, Stephen, Peter (if the legend about his crucifixion is basically true), Polycarp, and a multitude of other Christians through the centuries would not have become martyrs--and Christianity would likely not have survived. If Luther and the other Reformers of the sixteenth century had been relativists, there would have been no Protestant Reformation.

Of course, some might say that Christians were martyred because of the absolutism of those who killed them--and that is, no doubt, partially true. But the absolutism of the Roman Empire--or the Roman Catholic Church--was opposed by those who believed that they had apprehended the Truth and who were willing to die, if necessary, for the sake of that Truth. That’s something no thoroughgoing relativist would likely do.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What About Conflicting Truth Claims?

The question about conflicting truth claims was raised by the reader of this blog who has commented most often. It is an important issue, and one that merits careful attention.

There are three main ways that individuals or groups can respond to conflicting truth claims: (1) With criticism, rejection, and attacks upon truth claims that conflict with one's own. (2) With a "live-and-let-live" attitude that basically accepts truth claims different from one's own as more or less equally valid, and (3) With dialogue in which the nature of the conflicting claims is clarified and serious attention is given to the differences being discussed.

The first of these three approaches was the most common in the past, but it is an approach that should be rejected, as it has often led to animosity and to bloodshed. I reject any action in the name of truth that leads to violence.

The second approach is becoming more and more common, and certainly it is good for fostering peaceful relations with other people. But I have serious questions about and problems with the relativism and pluralism it spawns. (This is such a timely and important issue that I want to deal with it further in a later posting on this blog.)

The third, I believe, is by far the best position. It does not reject other truth claims to the extent of causing harm, but neither does it accept them without question. Except for cases where conflicting truth claims are clearly injurious to others, there is an openness to listen and even to learn from those espousing opposing views. For a Christian believer, this is especially true with regard to the faithful adherents of the main religious traditions of the world.

As I wrote in my comments posted on August 31, "dialogue is only possible where there are different viewpoints shared freely." Dialogue involves talking about differences more than about similarities. Careful analysis of those differences may show that some of them are superficial and can be harmonized. But other differences may well turn out to be substantial and unable of being disposed of easily.

John Hick, one of the examples of Christian liberalism that I introduce in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism," has a chapter called "The Conflicting Truth Claims of Different Religions" in his Philosophy of Religion (third edition, 1983). Hick concludes his chapter with these words: ". . . the great religious traditions of the world represent different human perceptions of and response to the same infinite divine Reality" (p. 121).

Hick's conclusion is no doubt true in many ways. But it does not answer all the questions. There are contradictory and conflicting claims that remain. As most of us know well, there are some remarkable conflicting truth claims between, say, fundamentalist and liberal Christians. So there are, naturally, often even greater conflicts between Christians and those in other faith traditions and especially between Christian believers and those who are atheists and/or complete secularists.

For the Christian thinker, to lash out against conflicting views with belligerence is not acceptable. But, neither, is a relativistic acceptance of conflicting or contradictory views. The hard work of dialogue and the continual search for, and witness to, the Truth is our obligatory task.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Southern Baptist Creed?

In 2004 my wife and I were forced to resign as missionaries with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because we would not--could not in good conscience--sign that we would work "in accordance with and not contrary to" The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), 2000.

Our problem was not just with the content of the revised BF&M, we objected to it being used like a creed. As I wrote earlier, I have never been much of a supporter of creeds, especially when they are used for forcing conformity and getting rid of deviants. But that certainly seemed like the way the BF&M was being used. SBC employees either had to agree with it or resign, retire, or be terminated.

So, refusing to sign, we became Southern Baptist heretics--although, to my knowledge, that term was never used. It did mean, though, that we were unilaterally placed on retirement status, lost a year's salary, and also lost no telling how many invitations to preach in Southern Baptist churches back in Missouri and elsewhere.

So even though I wrote about creeds and heresy in my previous posts, creeds should not be used as the BF&M was--as a weapon to force conformity (or duplicity, as some signed the necessary statement in order to continue their missionary work while not agreeing with the revised content of the BF&M). Nor, as I suggested in the previous posting, should heretics be punished (although our "punishment" was certainly light compared to that of many considered heretics throughout the history of the church).

Actually, the use of the BF&M as a creed was worse than using the historical creeds as statements of orthodoxy. The addition of the words "the office of pastor is limited to men" was the main (but not the only) objection we had to the revised and amended BF&M. Unlike the creeds, though, which can be interpreted on different levels (such as the Ascension, which does not have to be affirmed as literal or physical), there is no interpretation possible for the statement denying the possibility of women in ministry.

So, even though the Southern Baptist Convention was my church home for sixty years, now that is is operating with a creed, I am glad to no longer be a part of that organization. (But, still, I feel some sadness, too, as it was my denominational home for so long.)