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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Truth and Time

A couple days ago, something incredibly normal happened. As we were about to go to bed, my wife asked me whether I had locked the door. I responded in the affirmative (while glancing around most suspiciously), at which point she looked at the door and discovered I had, in fact, not locked the door yet. She promptly called me out on this, and I had a goofy response: "Well, it's about to be true!" What I didn't realize when I said this was that my response would spawn a convoluted path of thoughts and possibilities within my mind. I began to consider whether truth had a temporal dimension.

At first, it was kind of an exercise in language: In which tenses does truth exist? Obviously, truth can exist in the past and present tenses: "I locked the door," or "I am wearing pajamas." But can truth exist in the future tense? "I will finish my homework" can have two outcomes: completion or non-completion. The issue is whether the statement will become true, because it is neither true nor false at the moment of speaking. These were some of the initial thoughts, and they only got more complicated from there. (Feel free to skip a few paragraphs; it might be a while before I get to anything resembling a point.)

Next, I began to wonder how things are true. "This bag has 30 jelly beans left." The statement is true, until a jelly bean is added or removed. Does this mean once an addition or subtraction occurs that the previous statement is rendered false or that the truth has changed? This has become a question of assertions. The circumstances have changed, so the claim must change with it. This is a key element of scientific pursuit. Even if I believe there are actually only 12 jelly beans, that does not change how many jelly beans there are. Likewise, belief in a geocentric solar system or a flat earth does not alter reality. The issue with the jelly beans is an issue of quantitative truth.

But what about qualitative truth? If I claim, "God is ancient," the claim states a quality. In this case, the quality cannot change, because the quality is inherently time-bound and God does not become less ancient as time progresses. If we claim something is new, however, that claim can change. "This is my new book." The newness of the phone will decay over time, eventually leaving me with an old book. Again, this is a temporal quality, but the quality changes. If I claim an object is made of silver, a quality of material, can that quality change? The silver can become tarnished, be crushed and melted, frozen, or worn, but it has not stopped being silver. What about qualities such as "good" and "evil"? A good thing can become bad, and vice versa; so does the claim have to be revised with the circumstances?

As far as I could tell, it was possible for truth to change. But this seemed only to apply to verbal assertions: one could make a claim that, at that moment, was indeed true, but the factors contributing to the truthfulness of the assertion could be altered. So I considered whether there is actually such a thing as absolute truth, truth that does not change with circumstance. If all things can and do change, with change being the only constant, then why not truth? But this thought is bound up in words: the things which are believed to be either true or false are found in words. Whether observed or not, whether stated or not, the earth does not cease being spherical. It may in some point in the future become otherwise (pending some enormous disaster that breaks it apart), but the truth is not found in the words, but in the reality that shapes them. (And this all is by no means all that crossed my mind; it's simply all I could remember pondering.)

If you were skipping around, here's where you should pick back up. One of the key elements of the Christian faith is a future claim. We are told Jesus will come again, that bodies will be resurrected, that heaven and earth shall be remade and God's kingdom rightfully restored to the returning king. But is this truth? By faith we believe it to be true. But can it be called "truth" if it hasn't happened yet? At this point, it's an assertion. An assertion we believe to be true, but an assertion nonetheless. I'm not debating God's faithfulness; quite the contrary, I hope to affirm it. By saying, "God is faithful," I make a claim about the past and, through the past, about the present. While past evidence does not necessarily predict the future with absolute certainty, God does not appear to have given me reason to suppose he has been unfaithful. So, with the past in mind, I look to the future, however uncertain it may be. I continue searching for truth and its complicated dimensions, only to be reminded occasionally how simple the truth can be. Can truth exist in the future? Maybe, but if it does, it has not happened yet. Whatever future truths our world holds, may we encounter them with faith in God's faithfulness. For with uncertain apprehension and trust in that faithfulness may we step boldly into each new moment.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

She Talks to Angels

Suffering is a part of life. We may ask why suffering exists, why there is evil, and why such things must occur within nature and humankind. In the realm of natural evil we find destructive weather and disease, and they seem to be part of a neutral, impersonal chaos. But if God permits such events to occur, then they hardly seem neutral.

As a result of such natural evil, a girl was born with cystic fibrosis. As Amanda's parents struggled through her affliction and ultimate death, so too do we struggle with the problems of evil and suffering. At this point, I would invite you to help with the creation of a film to fashion a narrative out of Amanda's story. Ross, the director over at G&H Media, has a Kickstarter campaign running (click here to check it out), and the film desperately needs more funding. If this story is to come to life it must have a better budget than it has currently. Give it a look, check out the promotional video, and offer others the opportunity to learn more about those who suffer, specifically from cystic fibrosis. The campaign closes May 29th (just 18 days away), so help these guys out; help this family tell their story!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

More Than You Can Handle

I heard many things about God and the Bible growing up: what God wanted from me, how I was supposed to act, and the necessity of going to church, among other things. And while my understanding of these particular concepts has changed over the years (drastically, in some cases), there are a few cases where what I heard was downright false. I don't think I would go so far as to say I was intentionally lied to, since so many of the people I knew then meant well and surely love God. Even so, there are a few points where claims were made that have no foundation in a biblical text or even within most of Christian history. This is one of those points.

Now, while this image is meant to be humorous (which, I admit, it is), it poses a serious problem. First, this is not in the Bible. The text we usually mean to reference is 1 Corinthians 10.13, which deals with the issue of temptation, not the terrible crap that happens in our lives. Second, if it were in the Bible, I firmly believe that human experience has proved otherwise. God consistently gives people more than they can handle. It seems to me that if God throws stuff at people "because they can handle it," it portrays him in a slightly sadistic light. But the other day, my brother (who had a pretty similar upbringing to my own, as it turns out) made an excellent observation: If we could handle everything, what need would we have for God? This is a valid question.

Believing God will not permit temptation beyond our capacity is most assuredly different from believing God will not give us more than we can handle. For J. M. Hicks (Yet I Will Trust Him, 1999), the question of divine permission is key to understanding God's place in a suffering world. This appears to be true both in terms of what God permits in our temptation and in our trials.

But I've had times where it was more than I could handle. Some pretty terrible things befell me in elementary school: verbal abuse from a teacher, being bullied by students as a result of that teacher, and the school administration turning a blind eye from my suffering. It was more than I could handle. And God let it happen. I wasn't tempted to curse God; in fact, I was too young to know what that was. Even so, it was so much that, at 8 years old, I was considering suicide so I couldn't hate those people any more. I had a friend who died from a heart condition at the age of 16. I've lost several great-grandparents during my life, my living grandpa has had multiple kinds of cancer, and I've finally had to think through the possibility of losing one of my parents.

My own personal sob stories aside (and I'm certain others have much more difficult tales than I), the Bible's reaction to God's actions are more than enough evidence to show how God consistently seems to let people down or put them through unspeakable things. The lament witness throughout the OT (Psalms, Job, Lamentations, sections of the Prophets) and small portions of the NT (references to the previous  shows the authors and nation of Israel to be in a position of finding themselves having been given by God more than they could handle. But even Job, when placed in a situation beyond what many of us will (hopefully) ever understand, could not turn from God.

God gives us more than we can handle. And whether we continue obstinately chanting, "God is good," or we ask, "God, why have you forsaken us?" let us not abandon the conversation with him. At least, not permanently. We may all experience times when we can no longer sing the Lord's song (Ps. 137), but a time will come when the song returns. And what a glorious day it will be when the song returns.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Simple vs. Simplistic

Those in higher education as well as those who have lived longer understand that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Science is complex, as are math, engineering, cartography, psychology, and a great many other disciplines. Theology is no exception. I know firsthand the possibilities of seeing complicated problems with simple statements. But few of us begin with such a complex understanding of things. When children ask, "Why is the sky blue?" it is acceptable to reply with, "God made it that way." But later on, while the original answer may still be true, a deeper answer will become appropriate. "It's the reflection of light against the oceans back into the atmosphere." This is still true, but it is a truth that takes into account the cognitive growth of the questioner.

I have voiced elsewhere how I think this is true in the realm of religion as well. When someone immature in faith asks, "What did Jesus say?" it is acceptable to point to a single passage and read it. Later on, however, we (should) learn to ask, "Why did Jesus say…?" We move deeper from the "what" to the "why," the "how," and other questions. (In truth, this post was borne out of having recently heard the phrase, "Jesus (or God or the Bible) said it, I believe it, and that settles it.")

In a similar fashion, when we do God's work in the world, we may start by asking, "What does God want us to do?" As faith deepens, so do the questions. "Why is this God's goal? Why should this be my goal? How does our understanding of the goal affect how we view God?"

With this in mind, this developing nature of the questions and the faith that drives them, we shouldn't forget the simple places where we began. Paul grew up and stopped being childish (1 Cor 13.11), but this doesn't mean he stopped being childlike. It is with childlike wonder that we continue to ask questions. Jesus values children and says those like children inherit the Reign of God (Mark 10.13-16; parallels in Matt 19.13-15; Luke 18.15-17).

Children are simple. But they are not simplistic. We are baffled by their deep questions for which we have no answers. They constantly ask questions, and as they grow the questions develop as well. As we grow in faith, our questions deepen, but as children do, let us never cease in asking questions. When we do, let's not mistake simplicity for simplification and avoid difficult questions in the process.