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Christians

All the Saints

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I went to church this morning in Peachtree City, Georgia. The pastor spoke from Ephesians 6 where Paul writes about engaging in a battle against spiritual forces and encourages his readers to stand firm. The sermon contained nothing new. But I noticed something I hadn’t before that got me thinking. Paul concludes his description of the “full armor of God” with an injunction:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

While it’s true that the huge fault lines created by the Great Schism and the Reformation had not yet appeared in the church, still there were divisions. Even from the very beginning there were Grecian Jews who complained that their own widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6). Culture divided the church between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Yet Paul’s vision was of a church somehow still united, a church so devoted to following Jesus that it would pray for all the saints.

In our own day the church looks more divided than ever. Not only are there various denominations (and groups refusing to become denominations), the church is also divided between Democrats and Republicans, black and white, those who favor gun control and those who oppose it, pro-gay and pro-marriage, pro-abortion and anti-abortion. All the diversity found in our nation appears also in the church.

Some want to exclude those who differ in matters of politics or social policy by refusing to acknowledge that they are really brothers or sisters. Some want to deny that God’s grace might save a man without making him pro-gay or might deliver a woman without making her anti-abortion. But Paul makes it clear that all the divisions that separate us are nothing compared to the faith that unites us, faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

I certainly don’t want to pretend that the issues that divide the church are unimportant. They are not. However, we don’t have to let those divisions keep us from enjoying our unity in Christ. That enjoyment will present a powerful testimony to the world and open our own eyes to the possibility that each of us might be in some measure wrong. We can disagree. We can urge one another to see different points of view. But in all our interactions we must treat each other with love and respect. There should not be any name-calling or sarcastic put-downs. We ought not to mock or deride one another. We gain nothing by regarding one another as wicked or insane.

I confess, I have been guilty. I have joined with those who vilify fellow Christians for religious or political differences. Forgive me. With God’s help I will do so no longer. Instead, I will pray for all the saints.

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Them

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Every group has its insider language, its set of assumptions about what insiders know and outsiders do not. For some groups the distinction between insider and outsider is so important that the groups incorporate secret rituals to ensure that outsiders don’t penetrate into the inside without first becoming insiders. Other groups require specialized knowledge, but they make no secret of it, and it is effectively available to all who take an interest in learning it. A few groups, however, actively recruit new members and claim a universal appeal. Such groups require a highly permeable perimeter where the distinction between insider and outsider, between us and them, is essentially fuzzy. The New Testament church is such a group.

In the New Testament, exclusive language occurs almost always in the context of describing heretics or apostates. These are not people who have never been welcomed into the Christian faith; they are people who were welcomed in but turned out to be pursuing their own agenda. They might be the Judaizers  of Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the proto-Gnostics of John’s letters. In nearly every case, though, they are former insiders who left or were forced out because their beliefs or teachings did not match those of the apostles.

Apart from these few, the New Testament church is very inclusive. Paul claims that the Christian faith encompasses every social and economic class and every ethnicity. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” What characterizes a Christian is not circumstances of birth or station in life but rather virtues that Jesus himself embodied: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, and love. These are characteristics that are universally admired but not so universally practiced. (In fact, one of the great conundrums of life, effectively answered in Christ, is why people so much admire virtues they themselves do not practice, even to the point of pretending to themselves that they do practice them.*)

Every unbeliever is potentially a believer, and every believer is potentially a fraud. Since we do not know people’s hearts, we need to treat everyone alike with dignity and respect, just as God treats us. He keeps providing opportunities to trust him even to those who have never yet trusted him. We need to rid ourselves of the smug superiority so common among evangelical Christians; it is offensive to everyone. We are none of us so righteous we cannot fall nor so wicked we are past redemption. If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

*For more information, see the works of C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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