"Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity.
We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity. An Age of Religious Pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
"Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world." - Todd Littleton
"I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see." - Anon
"Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all." - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
"Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals." - Jim Forest
"People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone." - Anon
"... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all." - R.E. Slater
"An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst." - R.E. Slater
"Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics." - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
"Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated." - Emil Brunner
"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lacan - If God is Dead Nothing is Permissible and All Things Become More Oppressive

If God is Dead Nothing is Permissible:
Some Thoughts on Secularism

by Peter Rollins
[with additional commentary by re slater]
December 12, 2014

Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov once claimed, “if God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” This famous line captures the common wisdom that the death of a supreme authority enables people to live in a freer way. Without an external sovereign authority offering prohibitions people can throw off their shackles and construct their own reality.

It can initially seem surprising then that Lacan gave his own spin to this saying by teaching that the death of God can actually mean that nothing is permitted. In this claim he is not only questioning the idea that the loss of an external soverign power means freedom, but he is also playing off a line in the Bible where Paul claims, “for me all things are permissible, but not all things are helpful.”

Not only is Lacan saying that the death of God doesn’t rid society of certain prohibitions, he goes further by saying that the death of God can lead to an even more oppressive type of prohibition.

To understand what this might mean we should begin by briefly describing an evolutionary myth Freud created to make sense of some of his findings in the clinic. The story involved going back to the very beginnings of civilization and imagining how human society took shape. In Moses and Monotheism he wrote of how humans lived together in a primordial pack held together via the leadership of a father/master figure. This powerful master created and enforced various laws that everyone needed to obey, laws that worked for the master’s own benefit and ensured his power.

This master controlled all the sexual relations of the primordial horde, ensuring the satisfaction of his own lusts at the expense of others.

Freud went on to write of how the community conspired together to kill the father. They planed this act of rebellion so as to break free from the tyranny of the father and enjoy open sexual relations.

They succeed in killing the master, but the surprising result is not more freedom. Instead the community experiences guilt over the murder and sets about memorializing the dead master. In doing this, the community internalize the prohibitions that were once externally imposed. Instead of entering into a freer, more sexually liberated community; they end up becoming their own oppressors, setting up rules to regulate their actions.


[Addendum: I can't help thinking of Jesus' death and its meaning to the world; or to us; or in Jesus' absence the coming of age of more rules from the church, the very community which worships Jesus. - re slater]


The point of the story was to make sense of a common scene in the psychoanalytic clinic, namely the neurotic who is not freed from the strict prohibitions of their parents when those parents die, but who continue to experience those prohibitions when the parents are nowhere to be seen. What one finds is that the individual has internalized the demands, making them a part of their subjective life. It is no longer the actual parent who is judging them, they are judging themselves from the perspective of the dead parent. The prohibition thus persists as a shadow on the inner wall of the individual.

To illustrate the difference between these, Žižek has contrasted two types of parent. The first tells their protesting child that they have to go and see their granny. The unwilling child experiences this as an external demand being imposed in order to limit her freedom.

But then there is the “enlightened” liberal parent who, instead of making an oppressive demand on the child to visit granny, attempts to guilt the child into going,

“Granny loves you, you really should go. You wouldn’t want to be selfish, would you?”

In this second case the child doesn’t just have to go to see their granny, but actually has to internalize the demand and make it their own. In the first the child can maintain a sense of inner protest by fighting against the authority figure, but in the latter they become their own oppressors. They have to go, and they have to like it.

Interestingly, the latter can be more oppressive than the former, because there is nowhere you can escape the gaze of the parent. In the former, one can transgress when the parent isn’t looking, while in the latter the gaze is always present like Bentham’s famous Panopticon. Indeed Žižek has even drawn out an interesting theological reading of the command, “you shall have no other gods before me.” Here he shows how this can be read as God saying, “You can have gods, but just be discreet, don’t do it where I can see.” This is analogous to the relationship where a couple say, “we can have affairs, just don’t talk about it.” In other words, the external authority always allows for a minimal space of transgressive maneuver.

This is why Žižek makes the point of saying that the first act of the revolutionary today is to cut against themselves, for we have become willing participants in our own oppressive systems. Systems that are even more pervasive now that secular society prides itself on being free of some divine sovereignty. We are not being forced to find meaning in consumerism, for example, we have internalized this message for ourselves. We can’t look at some external authority that must be overcome. That authority dwells within us even when we experience it bearing down on us (e.g. when we experience the oppression of our own desire to purchase products).

For Lacan, the death of a sovereign authority doesn’t lead to freedom, for the law that is externally imposed is internalized so that it becomes even more oppressive (at a more basic level this can be described as something which marks the very creation of our ego, but we won’t go into that here).

This can help us understand why Radical Theologians are skeptical of modern secular humanism. For the freedom often claimed by humanists can be seen as anything but freedom.

One may no longer believe in an all seeing eye watching everything, for example, but we might find no problem embracing the proliferation of surveillance technology. Our society may tacitly embrace a militarized police force, clandestine Government agencies, black hole prisons etc. even though they provide the same limits that religion once played. The external divine authority has been replaced with a sovereignty that is structurally the same, but has been internalized into the society’s unconscious. We not only are forced to live in it, we are encouraged to enjoy, defend it and constantly feel it. We are asked to embrace our oppression.


In (psycho)analytic terms, an individual neurotic does not need to simply embrace the death of the parents in order to free themselves from a potentially oppressive regime, they need to find freedom from the parents law as it has been integrated into their subjectivity.

The complex move that has to be made here is for the internalized dead parents to realize that they are dead. What this means is that our own subjective system of prohibitions has to confront its own non-existence.

A person can easily say something like, “My dad disapproved of me doing X, but now he’s dead he can’t judge me” while still finding themselves feeling deeply guilty when doing X. The internal structure needs to experience it’s own death. Something Lacan referred to as the moment in which we confront the non-existence of the Big Other.

This is why people like Zizek remain interested in Christianity, for in their radical reading they see something much more shocking than the secular proclamation of God’s non-existence. Instead they see the fundamental Christian move as involving both the internalization of the death of God (the Crucifixion as subjective experience), alongside the experience of this internal God discovering its own impotence (“Why have you forsaken me”).

This theological shock therapy corresponds to what we might call the psychoanalytic cure. In the cure the individual not only intellectually comes to terms with the death of the external authority, but is freed from the internalized form of that authority (the super-ego) through experiencing that authority confrontating its impotence. This opens up a different way of living that can be described as a love that fulfills/abolishes the law (Resurrection life in theological terms).

The individual who has broken free of sovereignty (in both its substantial sacred and shadowy secular form), is able to live a life of love in which their acts arise from an experience of joy rather than internal coercion.

From this perspective one can say that traditional forms of religion function as a type of external prohibitive authority structure while modern society tends to exhibit an internal prohibitive authority structure. In contrast to both of these, radical communities (like ikon and ikonNYC) are attempts to deconstruct sovereignty in its external and internalized ways so that a different type of life can emerge. Something that is captured beautifully in the saying, “There was once an Englishman so brave, not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn’t even afraid of them.”

One can still talk of a type of sovereignty in this third space, but it functions in a significantly different way. To understand this we need only think of parents with a newborn child. The parents might say, “our child is the most beautiful person in the world.” However they don’t mean this in some objective way. It is a truth they affirm while knowing that it is a truth told from their subjective standpoint, a truth without objective foundation. This is why they don’t say, “our child is average looking.” For, again, this would be an attempt at objectivity. The parents are caught up in love for the infant and would sacrifice so much for the child. But the sacrifice is not felt as an oppressive demand. It is joyously affirmed and arises from their love. It is this type of joyous commitment to the world arising from love that is opened up in the death of sovereignty in its sacred and secular forms.

- Peter



Hence, by removing the guilts and the laws within us - or our ego or Superego (though I do not personally identify our Superego as God; for myself, God is a very real entity unassociated with my speculation of Him) - through Jesus and by His Holy Spirit the Christian may begin a new way of living life. A life moved by redemption's freedom to express God-centered love to self and towards others not as an obligation but as "re-imaged re-creators" through Him who recreated us in Jesus and by Jesus' atonement.

Thus, we may respond to life even as our Father God would respond to life Himself - not as rule-givers and law-makers but as well-centered people willing to respect and honor each other in mutual affirmations of love. And by this act, or belief, a response in love may be shared with all that this can mean in a recreation from guilt-based and law-filled lives seeking a way out from self's oppressive regimes (something Paul would call the "old man". But this is not to deny sin, nor identify sin as a guilty conscience, etc.) but to put our sin - including the sins of our oppression - to death by releasing God's redeeming love from within us to the world beyond. Thus is the power of Jesus' resurrection and His Holy Spirit. Hence and so forth, this then is what is meant to be "life-bearers" and "life-givers" in Jesus.

re slater

The Experience of the Absence of God in the Christian Life

The Absence of God

well, at least the Old Testament has one thing going for it

by Peter Enns
December 16, 2014

I kid of course. I happen to think the OT has a lot going for it, which is why I force my hapless undergrads to deal with it.

But not too long ago it snuck in the backdoor of my mind that the OT has something of core spiritual value that the NT doesn’t–the repeated observation and lamentation over God’s absence, the sense of God’s abandonment.

The OT, as we all know, has a serious dark side–what Walter Brueggemann calls Israel’s “counter testimony.”

In Israel’s main testimony, the story from Genesis through 2 Kings (from creation to exile), Israel’s plan for what it means to be the people God is laid out (albeit with all sorts of intersting and unexpected bumps and grooves): obedience to God leads to life in the land while disobedience leads to divine punishment and eventually exile.

The blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are laid out nicely in Deuteronomy 27-30, and the same general idea in poetic form can be seen in Psalm 1.

But a key dimension of Israel’s tradition is the observation that the “rules of the game” that God insists on can’t be counted on.

Psalm 73, for example, notices that–contrary to God’s promise–the wicked prosper all the time and the righteous endure long days of suffering. Psalm 88 is a cry for help to God, but he is a no-show–darkness is the psalmist’s only companion (see the last verse). Right next door is Psalm 89, which in effect calls God a liar for failing to keep his promise that David’s line will continue forever (v. 36). The throne is empty now that Israel is in exile. God is, therefore, a promise-breaker.

And don’t get me started on Ecclesiastes and Job. Qohelet, the main character in Ecclesiastes, is seriously depressed and not a little ticked off at how God has set up the world. We go about our work day after day, it’s all the same, and we never actually have anything to show for it, because at the end of the day “you can’t take it with you.” Death cancels out all our achievements. “This is how God has set up the world, so don’t talk to me about blessing and curses, rewards and punishments.”

And nowhere in the book is there any attempt to “correct” Qohelet. In fact, the end of the book pronounces Qohelet as “wise” precisely because his words are painful, like spiked sticks used for driving sheep and cattle.

And poor Job. “Suffering” is too shallow a word to describe how his life utterly obliterated the neat world of  “actions have consequences” that we see in Israel’s main testimony. Job’s friends try again and again to help Job see the light: “You’re suffering Job. Read your Bible. You suffer because there is some sin in your life. There must be. Actions have consequences.”

Job’s response throughout is, “I don’t care what you say. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Even though Job’s friends merely repeated the “actions have consequences” idea that is hammered home elsewhere in the OT, at the end of the book God himself turns to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, and says, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Even God isn’t held to the “biblical teaching” of the main testimony.

My point is that this sort of honest and even unnerving grappling with “what in the world God is up to and why should any of us bother with this God who lays out a plan that doesn’t seem to work in the day to day world” is all over the OT.

But you don’t find it in the NT.

In a word, the NT has a more triumphalist tone. In Christ, God has shown up definitively, finally. The NT writers tell us that in the gospel we see God’s final plan worked out before all the world–in an suffering, executed, and raised messiah.

The NT no doubt grapples with the question of suffering–no happy clappy world does the NT present–but we do not see the same anguish over the sense of God’s absence and abandonment that we see in the OT.

The exception is Jesus’s own cry of God’s abandonment in the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which is a citation of Psalm 22:1, one of those “Where are you when we actually need you, God?” psalms uttered by the ancient Israelites–the crucified Jew’s abandonment by God sums up and embodies Israel’s experience throughout much of its own history.

But as interesting as that observation may be, that’s not my point here. This is my point: the sense of God’s absence, that anyone who has been a Christian for more than 45 minutes can attest to, finds its biblical echo the OT, not in the NT.

The NT, after all, tells the “end” of Israel’s story–in the sense that “this is where the story of Israel winds up.” The purpose of the NT is not to raise the specter of God’s abandonment but the trumpet call of God’s triumph for Israel and all the world.

But in my experience, this is precisely the problem for people who don’t feel triumphant.

If all we read is the NT, we are left with a sense that, however difficult things may be at the moment, stick with it: Jesus has come and he is coming back very soon.
There is no articulation on the part of NT writers of the deep sense of God’s absence that we find among the OT writers, who are there over the long haul, day in and day out, waiting for God to show up and stick to his own plan.

If all we read is the NT and we are also living though a period of God’s absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this way.

If we don’t walk around in more or less a state of perpetual triumph and spiritual “victory” we will think we are some lower form of life, further down the ladder of spiritual maturity.

This is why we need to hear the experiences of the ancient Israelites to relieve us of our spiritual shame.

Their experiences are very much like ours today: life is hard, and life of faith does not automatically make it easier. It may actually make it harder at times.

Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians. They are not to be sought after, but they are normal. They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal. They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.

To speak otherwise is to ignore the counter testimony. The Bible tells me so–and I’m glad it does.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Rebecca Trotter - Defiance is a Christian Virtue

Defiance is a Christian Virtue

by Rebecca Trotter
November 18, 2011

The moments in my life that have been most sure and which have left me with the most peace and joy have been moments of defiance. The times when, even though no one else would get it, I knew the path I needed to take forward and I took it. These are my reckless moments. Those things that caused offense, consternation, even concern for my sanity among those watching.

I am often a very cautious person. I don’t go shopping without knowing what I’m going to buy and how much I’ll pay for it. I skip the “trust” part of “trust, but verify” and go straight to verify. I can explain the things I do and the choices I make down to a level of detail that could put a hyper-active 7 year old to sleep. I think of what I’m going to say before dialing the phone. I think of questions I can ask people and topics to discuss before I get into conversations. I bite my tongue often. I handle my relationships with kid gloves lest I damage them or hurt someone unintentionally.

So these moments of defiance must seem out of character to anyone who doesn’t understand what’s going on beneath the surface. But these moments of defiance are my most true moments. They are the moments when what is beneath rushes to the surface and propels me forwards, regardless of all the consequences. Because I already know all the consequences. And not one of them – not disapproval, the loss of relationships, poverty, pain or anything else – is nearly enough to stop me from doing what I know I need to do. I can be reckless because I know that I’m doing something I have been specifically called by God to do or because I know that the damage done to myself if I do not do them is far greater than any of those consequences could be. I can be defiant because I have examined the matter through and through and I know that it’s coming from a pure place in my spirit. You have to be willing to be defiant if you are going to follow God and allow him to restore your heart.

This defiance is something I love about Christianity. The bible is filled with people recklessly defying expectations, norms, social pressures, sometimes reality itself. When Peter or Paul sat in a prison cell, often beaten, and sang songs of praise to God, that is defiance. When Hosea married a faithless woman and wooed her back to himself over and over, that’s defiance. When the woman with her jar of perfume washed Jesus feet with her hair, that was defiance.

Some of the strangest stories in the bible are one where God appears to approve of or reward those breaking the rules. The prophets who bargained for a better deal from God to protect their people from the full blast of God’s wrath. Jacob who deceived his own father and wrestled with God. The parable of the crooked steward who bargained with his master’s debtors to gain favor with them when he realized he was going to be fired or even imprisoned. These are all stories of people who said, “not good enough” and bargained, schemed and acted to forge a different path in defiance of all expectations.

Jesus’ entire life and ministry were defiant. He wasn’t the warrior the Jews were looking for. He talked to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to. Made outcasts - the inconsequential and the unclean - the heroes of his stories. When faced with an attempt to force him into a damned if you do – damned if you don’t choice (should we pay taxes? stone the adulteress?), he found a third answer no one else had seen before. He broke rules that were misinterpreted and misapplied and made those who tried to shame him for it look the fool. When he did not even say a word to stop his own execution, it wasn’t the enemy gaining the upper hand as it appeared, but a defiant willingness to walk a path no one could have predicted. And in the end, he defied death itself.

All these millenia later God is still calling us to be faithfully defiant. So we sing through our tears. Forgive the unforgivable. Confront those who spread pain, fear and suffering about them. Love the filthy and mean and undeserving. When we serve small children and drug addicts and those left behind. When we fall down and get back up and fall down and get back up and repeat as many times as it take until we succeed or we die, we are faithfully defiant.

This sort of defiance is freedom and peace and goodness in action. It washes away doubt, discards baggage, untangles unhealthy entanglements. When we follow in the footsteps of the defiant faithful who have gone before, we truly are taking the road less traveled. It’s not paved or smooth or even particularly safe. It’s the narrow winding road that few find and fewer stay on. Often to those watching, it looks like we’re wandering in the wilderness with no direction and no sense. And yet, as long as we continue to use our spiritual eyes, nothing can convince the faithfully defiant to abandon it for the more sensible, well traveled path. Because a journey begun in faithful defiance is guaranteed to lead us closer and closer to God – no matter how dire our circumstances. If we end up alone, despised, poor, crushed and even dead, we do so gladly, in defiance of all expectations and external pressures. And I would rather be crawling on my belly in filth and misery along the narrow way than walking in comfort on the wide path that my God has told me leads to no where I want to be.

140 years ago, a man and his family were living a blessed life. The father was a successful lawyer, with healthy children and a wife who was admired and respected in the community. They lived in Chicago where the family fortune was largely invested in a thriving real estate market. They moved in prominent circles and were good friends of DL Moody, the famed evangelist. 139 years ago, their only son died at age 4. 138 years ago the family’s wealth was wiped out in the great Chicago fire. 137 years ago, the man placed his beloved wife and four daughters on a ship to England to start a new life in England working with Moody. He stayed behind to attend to loose ends before following them across the sea. But the ship his family was on collided with another ship on the open sea. His precious daughters were ripped from their mother’s arms by the force of water that sank their ship in only 12 minutes and drowned. On the voyage across the ocean to join his wife in her grief, one of the great, defiant songs of Christianity was written. Because defiance is a Christian virtue:

David Phelps, "It Is Well With My Soul"

Exploring Evolution Series - Microbiome may have shaped early human populations

Reconstruction of Rhodesian Men. | Credit: Public Domain

Microbiome may have shaped early human populations
Dec 16, 2014

We humans have an exceptional age structure compared to other animals: Our children remain dependent on their parents for an unusually long period and our elderly live an extremely long time after they have stopped procreating.

Could the microscopic fellow travelers that consider the human body to be their home - collectively known as the microbiome - have played an active role in shaping and maintaining this unusual aspect of human nature?

That is the speculative proposition advanced by Martin Blaser, professor of medicine and microbiology at NYU's Langone Medical Center, and supported by mathematical models produced by Glenn Webb, professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt University. They present their argument in a paper titled, "Host demise as a beneficial function of indigenous microbiota in human hosts," published online today in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Scientists have known for a long time that every species of plant and animal acts as host for a distinctive collection of microorganisms. The human microbiome consists of about 100 trillion microbial cells, outnumbering the much larger human cells by about 10 to 1. Until recently they thought that the influence these microscopic communities have on their hosts was extremely limited. But recent research has found that their influence extends well beyond aiding digestion and producing bodily odors; they also aid brain development, reproduction and defense against infection. Taken together, the new evidence has led to the hologenomic theory of evolution, which proposes that the object of Darwin's natural selection is not just the individual organism as he proposed, but the organism plus its associated microbial community.

Blaser got the idea for the impact of microbes on human age structure from his lifetime research on Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium found in the stomach of more than 50 percent of the world's population.

H. pylori co-exists peacefully in people's stomachs for most of their lives. It even has some beneficial effects. In 1996, for example, Blaser discovered that it may help regulate levels of stomach acid. However, H. pylori is also a major cause of stomach cancer, a risk that increases with age.

"I began thinking that a real symbiont is an organism that keeps you alive when you are young and kills you when you are old. That's not particularly good for you, but it's good for the species," Blaser said.

Webb's expertise is the development of nonlinear differential equations to describe dynamic biological processes. So the microbiologist turned to him to see if they could come up with a mathematical model that would test this idea.

The approach they agreed upon was to create a model of an early hunter-gather population and see what role the microbiome might have played.

"We don't have many facts to go on, so we don't know what happened a thousand generations ago," Webb said. "But differential equations are all about change and by comparing different rates of change to one another we can tell what works and what doesn't work."

One of their basic assumptions was that people haven't changed much in the last 100,000 generations. In particular, they had the capability to live up to 120 years, which seems to be the current limit on human longevity. Of course, they had shorter average lifetimes because they had a number of sources of mortality that have been largely eliminated in modern society: fewer outbreaks of infectious diseases due to improved sanitation, reduction in back-breaking physical labor, increased availability of food, and modern medicines like antibiotics.

Their model divided the population into three different age groups: juvenile, reproductive and senescent. They looked at how the population would respond to different combinations of fertility and mortality rates. They developed a baseline case using the best estimates of these rates that they could find.

Then they added mortality risks based on particular microbial profiles.

In one version, they added a risk factor based on Shigella, one of the leading bacterial causes of diarrhea worldwide. This increased mortality only among children. It caused the population to crash.

In another version, they added an H. pylori-type mortality factor, one that increases with age. They found that this decreased the percentage of the senescent population, which benefitted the juvenile population by reducing the elderly's demand on food and resources. The end result was stronger population growth and greater stability than the baseline case.

These results are consistent with Blaser's contention that evolution may have acted on the human microbiome to favor bacteria like H. pylori that target the aging. "This isn't good for the individual, but it is good for the species," Blaser said. Anything the bacteria can do to stabilize the human population benefits them because they loose their hosts if the population crashes.

The researchers also decided to see what happened when they doubled the fertility rate. The result was an unstable system that was thrown into catastrophic boom-bust cycles in response to disasters (events that caused major population loss).

In another variation, they increased the proportion of elderly in the hunter-gatherer population. They found it didn't take much of an increase to force the population into a state of decline.

In addition to providing validation to the proposition that the microbiome may be shaping the human age structure, Webb observed that the modeling effort also reveals an underlying truth about human population growth. We have the right fertility and mortality rates to support our unusual age structure.

"If you go back 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, there were only 30,000 to 40,000 people in the world and they were scattered over Africa, Europe and parts of Asia," said Webb. "Are we lucky just to be here? Or did we survive because our ancestors were robust enough to handle all the environmental changes and natural disasters they encountered? According to our equations, it was because they were robust enough."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thomas Jay Oord - Does It Make Sense to Believe in Miracles?

Owyhee hike and flowers, June 2011 | Thomas Jay Oord

Does it Make Sense to Believe in Miracles?

by Thomas Jay Oord
December 5, 2014

Fewer people today seem to believe in miracles. This seems especially true of those living in “first-world” countries and especially true of scholars. For various reasons, I can understand their skepticism. But I think we have good grounds to affirm miracles, properly understood.

In the final chapter of my current book on providence, I address the issue of miracles. This book project is funded as part of a larger grant I received to explore what it means to believe God acts providentially in a world of randomness.

Much of my discussion in this last chapter revolves around various reasons many people today reject miracles. A major part of the problem is the definition given miracles.

It has become common in the past few centuries (since David Hume) to define miracles as supernatural violations of the laws of nature or divine interventions. But these definition are laden with problems.

1. The category of “laws of nature” is ill-defined and unnecessary. Besides those who witness miracles – whether the miracles reported in the Bible or witnessed today – rarely if ever say, “Wow! I just observed a law of nature violated!”

2. The idea of “intervention” suggests that God must come to a closed system of nature from the outside. But Christians ought to believe God is omnipresent. And that means God is always already present to the natural world, never needing to “inter–vene.”

3. The idea of “supernatural” leads implicitly to views in which God is thought to coerce, override, interfere, overpower, or in some way totally control a creature or situation. But if God has that kind of coercive power, the problem of evil is insuperable.


I believe in miracles. I don’t think they are simply “in the mind of the religious believer.” I think miracles are objective events that occur in the world.

Of course, I don’t think all claims about miracles are legitimate. Some are hoaxes, wishful thinking, the effects of hysteria, or coincidences. But I do think some miracles actually occur, and those of us who believe in God need to account for them if we are to witness well to hope that we have in God.

Defining Miracles

In the concluding chapter of my current book on providence, I offer this definition of a miracle:

"A miracle is an unexpected and good event that occurs through God’s special
action in relation to creation. This definition has three essential elements. Miracles
are: (1) unexpected events, (2) good events, (3) involve God’s special action in
relation  to creation."

1. The signs and wonders we read about in the Bible, in history, or encounter today are noteworthy, in part, because they are surprising. They are unusual or extraordinary. As Augustine put it, a miracle is an “unusual” event “beyond the expectation or ability of the one who marvels at it.”

Some unexpected events leave us awestruck and impressed by the power they display. But these occurrences may not be positive, loving, or good. They may cause harm, destruction, or evil. Sheer power is not miraculous, and some awe-filled events are awful.

2. We should reserve “miracle” to describe unexpected events (whether powerful or not) that we believe promote well-being in some way. Miracles are beneficial. Miracles are events we deem good.

3. In addition to being unexpected and good, miracles involve special divine action. I believe that the special divine action that makes miracles possible occurs when God provides new possibilities, forms, structures, or ways of being to creatures. These gifts for the miraculous may reflect dramatic or awesome ways of existing should they be embodied or incorporated.

Miracles are possible when God provides good and unexpected forms of existence. God sometimes desires well-being through diverse forms and multifarious dimensions.

Of course, I go into all of these issues in much more detail in my book. I’m sending the completed book manuscript to Intervarsity Academic Press before Christmas. I’ve signed a contract, and I expect the book to be available in the fall of 2015.

If you have some comments on miracles that you think I should consider before submitting the manuscript, I’d love to hear from you. If I really like your comment, I'll include your name in a footnote or in the book's acknowledgement section!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

הללויה להקת חינוך - Hallelujah

Whatever the language,
wherever the tongue,

הללויה להקת חינוך
[Hallelujah Corps Education]

הללויה- ליאונרד כהן
ביצוע להקת חיל החינוך והנוער
תרגום קובי מידן ,עיבוד דרור אלכסנדר
במאי מיכאל יוסף
הפקה ניר פייבל ע במאי ומפיק בפועל - כפיר גורגה
צילום ועריכה מייקל בהרם
ניהול אומנותי - רס"ן רן שפירא

Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen
Performing band - Education and Youth Corps
Translation - Kobi Meidan
Dror processing - Alexander May Michael Joseph
Fable paper production by director and executive producer - Kfir George
Photo Editing - Michael Bahram
Artistic director - Major Ran Shapira

The Meaning of Jesus' Birth to the Romans of the Ancient World

Luke’s Counter-Cultural Christmas Story:
Jesus’ path to peace and joy

By Paul T. Penley
December 16, 2014

Was Jesus born to save us from this world or bring peace to the earth?
Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story answers this question.

What a Birth Means to a Mom

For many of us the story of our birth doesn’t answer questions about the purpose of our life. Birth stories typically amount to no more than nostalgic moments at family gatherings. One parent (if you’re so blessed to have a relationship with one) smiles wide and recounts an anecdote for the hundredth time to the chagrin of all who must endure it. My mother is guilty of it all the time.

Her favorite tale is my in utero umbilical cord trick. I had tied the cord in a knot while in the womb. When I popped out, the doctors knew I was a few good pulls away from starving myself. “It is a miracle he’s alive today,” my mom always says, normally adding, “God must have created him for an important purpose.” With this statement, my birth story turns into a mandate. It puts serious pressure on me to do things that matter. Every good thing I do now becomes potential material for my mother to link back to my providential preservation at birth. I really need to start producing some of that material.

The Meaning of Ancient Births

Ancient biographies of great figures such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus use circumstances at birth to predict greatness. The Greek historian Plutarch recounted two particular signs predicting Alexander the Great’s conquest of the known world. First, the Temple of Artemis burned down in Ephesus when Alexander was born. Second, his dad’s triple victory on the day of his son’s birth tipped off the prophets to his significance.

“On the same day, three pieces of news reached Philip (Alexander’s dad), who had just captured Potidaea: Parmenio’s defeat of the Illyrians in a great battle; the victory of Philip’s racehorse at the Olympic Games; and the birth of Alexander. Pleased as he surely was with these tidings, Philip was even more elated by the prophets, who declared that his son, as he had been born on the day of a triple victory, would be unconquerable” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 3)

What did all this mean? Magi in Ephesus believed the burning of the Temple to Artemis foreshadowed the coming destruction of the Persians who ruled the area. And they were right. Alexander did exactly that during his unstoppable conquest across the known world building the Greek Empire. The activity around his birth prophesied that conquest. It was no coincidence. That’s why ancient biographies of heroic figures began with a birth story.

If the signs around ancient births deliver symbolic messages, it makes me wonder what missing messages are tucked into the birth narratives of Jesus. What statement is being made by the sequence of events around Jesus’ birth that we overlook today?

The Birth of Two Different Saviors

You might know that only Matthew and Luke wrote birth stories. The earliest Gospel Mark provides no such account, and John’s Gospel focuses on divine origin rather than physical birth. When we analyze the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, we find two very different stories. We find logistical differences in the genealogies. We find different geographical movements:

Matthew starts in Bethlehem and sends the family to Egypt after the birth.

Luke starts and ends in Nazareth with a trip to Bethlehem for the birth.

It’s important to ask why.

In the big picture, Matthew’s account presents Jesus in terms most meaningful to Jews immersed in Scripture. Luke describes Jesus’ birth for Gentiles immersed in a Greek-speaking Roman world. Their audiences demand two different depictions of Jesus’ birth. For each Gospel to foreshadow greatness at birth, they could not tell the same story to two different audiences.

So how do Matthew and Luke contextualize their birth narratives for different audiences? To summarize, Matthew proclaims Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” Luke’s Jesus will save “all people.”

Matthew connects Jesus to the “Immanuel” Isaiah prophesied
who is born in Bethlehem where Micah predicted.

 Essentially Matthew introduces the “ruler of the Jews.”

The elements of his birth story derive from messianic expectations of the Jews carefully tied to Scripture.

Luke introduces the “Lord of the world” to Gentiles. So he goes in a different direction.

Luke 2 and the Roman Empire

Luke avoids exclusivity and calls Jesus a Savior “for all people.” Jesus will bring “peace on earth.” He is the Lord of all not just king of the Jews. However, Luke is not just presenting a generic “Jesus for everybody.” Luke is doing something more specific than we typically realize. Remember Luke’s audience grew up in a Greco-Roman world around modern-day Turkey. They had specific traditions from the Greek-speaking Roman Empire that Luke was challenging in his presentation of a new Savior.

How do I know? Good question. In Luke’s birth story, he immediately connects it to a Roman census issued by Caesar Augustus. Luke 2:1 reads, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Of all the events and figures he could have mentioned, Luke wants his readers to place Jesus’ birth during the reign of Augustus in the Roman Empire. Being the only mention of Augustus (at least by name) in the entire New Testament, it stands out and begs the question: “Why?” What is it Luke wants us to see? How exactly does the birth of Jesus relate to Augustus’s Roman Empire?

For those 3 of you out there who have been asking this question your whole life, get ready for your thirst to be satisfied in this excerpt from my book Reenacting the Way (of Jesus). For the rest of you, just go with it for a few paragraphs. It’s going to get good.

The Gospel of Augustus

In 9 BCE the Proconsul of Asia, Paulus Fabius Maximus, advised the koinon of Asia (i.e., the governing assembly of the Roman province of Asia) to change their calendars from the local lunar calendar to the solar calendar used in Rome. I know. It’s such a big event you are wondering how you hadn’t heard about it before.

Asia Minor moves from a lunar calendar --> to the Roman solar calendar

The Proconsul specifically recommended the first of the year be placed on September 23, the birthday of Caesar Augustus. His reasoning was simple. Since the birth of Augustus ushered in a new age of peace and prosperity, his birthday should be the first day of every year.

The governing assembly loved the idea. They all knew it would please the emperor and possibly attract more imperial tax dollars. So they put together a good PR campaign to milk it for all it was worth. They posted a declaration of their decision in every major city. Read this translation carefully and listen for the same language you’ve read in Luke’s birth story of Jesus:

Providence has filled Augustus with divine power for the benefit of humanity, and in her beneficence has granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful order] . . . And Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our god signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him. (Lines 34-41 quoted from Graham Stanton, Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Pr, 2004], 32)

For the Christian reader this inscription sounds full of heretical language. It seems to apply titles and roles to Augustus that are religious in nature and only appropriate for Jesus. Yet, the language is fully political:

In the time of Augustus, a Savior full of divine power whose birth signaled good news for the world was nothing other than the emperor who brought political and social stability. The birth of Caesar Augustus created the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. He saved the civilized world from disarray. So his birthday is a gospel to proclaim.

The Gospel of Jesus and Augustus

How does the “good news” of Jesus’ birth relate to the “good news” of Augustus’s birth? In the gospel of Augustus above and the gospel of Jesus in Luke, both are “Saviors.” Both bring “peace to the whole world.” Both are sent by divine providence.

In a Roman world, the arrival of a Savior would not mean a few individuals can now be snatched away to heaven from the perils of this planet or the afterlife. Luke and his audience wouldn’t see Jesus as a personal savior who intends to bring peace to one’s soul. It is much bigger than that. It is a direct challenge to Caesar. Jesus arrives to rule the world and restore order.

Why does hearing the precise meaning of Luke’s birth narrative matter? Because many of us associate “savior” with someone who just takes care of our sins or personal needs or fears of the future. “My savior solves my problems.” While those issues may be addressed in the Bible elsewhere, Luke’s vision for saving goes way beyond a personal spiritual experience. It has ramifications for the entire world and all of its social structures. Jesus’ birthday in Luke anticipates justice in society not personal justification in heaven. It concerns the same realm over which Caesar exerted his control.

But, Luke’s intricate connection between Jesus and Caesar doesn’t stop there. The entire scale of his birth narrative mocks an ancient practice of flagrant Caesar self-promotion.

Singing Caesar’s Praises

The angels in Jesus’ birth story don’t get much attention. We typically pay attention to what was said not who said it. However, that wasn’t the case for Luke and his Greco-Roman audience. When an army of angels takes center stage to sing about Jesus the Savior, Luke knows his audience will make another connection. The singing angels weren’t the only chorus in town that sung about the good news of saviors and lords.

In many eastern Roman provinces, the [reigning] Caesar was honored at athletic competitions and worshipped at imperial temples. At the time of Jesus’ birth, temples to the god Augustus and the goddess Roma stood in key cities where Luke and Paul did ministry together (e.g., Pergamon of Asia, Ankyra of Galatia, and Nikomedia of Bithynia). People worshipped the emperor like a god at these temples.

At the city of Pergamon (one of the seven churches of Revelation located in the Roman province of Asia where Luke travelled), organizers named their athletic competition the Kaisareia [Caesaria] in honor of the Caesar. The Caesars loved the flattery. And the organizers knew it. Besides running and wrestling in honor of Caesar, the competitions expanded to kiss Caesar’s [royal] ass through poetry and song. Performers composed verse like Horace’s Odes (see Ode 1.12) to thank God for sending Caesar Augustus to save the world.

Heavenly Angels One Up Caesar’s Choir

So what do these Caesar-loving songs have to do with the singing angels in Luke 2:1-20? I’m glad you asked. Early in Augustus’s reign he visited one of Pergamon’s celebrations in his honor and heard a chorus of men sing his praises. He was quite taken by their melodic compliments. The gesture of the Asian chorus so pleased the emperor that he ordered the singers to become a permanent fixture in Asia’s honorary contests.

To make it feasible Augustus established a special levy to financially support the existence of a forty-person male chorus. The chorus quickly became an elite social club with hereditary rites. They gathered at one event after another to sing the praises of the Caesars. They guaranteed top-quality sycophancy for stroking every emperor’s ego.

When Luke’s audience heard about a massive angelic chorus singing the praises of God and his appointed Savior, the closest experience would be imperial singers. They had heard the songs sung by the choir praising Providence for Caesar’s peaceful rule over the world.

But the comparison would quickly become a contrast. Jesus’ birth elicited the presence of countless angels from heaven. Caesar Augustus had to pay a group of men to show up and sing his praises. One of those choruses is clearly superior. One of those births must be more important. Luke’s contrast would have made a statement to any Hellenistic audience who had grown up in the Pax Romana [the Peace of Rome] established by Caesar Augustus. There is a new emperor in town. He is a much bigger deal. And his name is Jesus.

Jesus Delivers What Politicians Propagandize 

Jesus’ birth should be heard as a polemic against political pretenders promising to deliver what only he can. As Luke makes clear, Jesus is savior and not some Caesar. His birth is the real good news. He is the one who will bring peace and joy to the whole world—even beyond Rome’s Empire. That is why endless angels from heaven sung about Jesus’ greatness whereas Caesar had to settle for some dudes he paid. Rome is only a parody of the reality found in Jesus.

To honor Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story, don’t just watch the 50th anniversary special of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Instead, embrace Jesus’ delivery of what the Roman Empire promised. He is the restorer of order and peace. Our lives should be ordered around him like the Asians rearranged their calendar around Augustus’s birthday to acknowledge how he authored a new world.

Jesus has the way to bring peace and justice to every society. Not surprisingly [then], Jesus’ method for remaking the world doesn’t look like Rome. Jesus does not bring about revolution through conquest and fear of reprisal. He doesn’t silence dissidents with the sword or subjugate nations involuntarily. Jesus delivers in a whole new way. Jesus’ kingdom policy involves compassion, justice, suffering to serve others, and empowering the oppressed and ostracized. Enemies are loved rather than slaughtered and arrogance is replaced by humility. These are the hallmark moments of Luke’s Gospel.

Social transformation results from personal transformation demonstrated publicly. Jesus’ kingdom is no spiritual escape from the complexities of life in this world and its societal structures. It is designed to reorder it all. It intends to address the same problems for which politicians develop policies and programs. Luke’s counter-cultural Christmas story calls us to re-commit to the way of Jesus rather than methods of unjust power brokers. Jesus can create peace in situations where human factions only foster violence.

Jesus Can Resolve Tribal Conflict

What does it look like for Jesus’ plan for peace to confront Rome’s lust for power? Return for a moment to the tribal genocide of Rwanda back in 1994. According to one eyewitness report, a group of roughly 13,500 Christians gathered in a small village 13 miles from Kigali to find refuge from the fighting. Although millions sought safety away from city centers, this particular gathering set itself apart because of their unique constituency. There were both Hutu and Tutsi people together.

These tribes were supposed to hate each other. If these Christians had adopted the cultural values of the militants, they would have been fighting one another instead of hiding together. This type of mixed gathering was unacceptable to the militias.

Their safe haven was eventually exposed to rebel militia who rounded them up at gunpoint. The rebels demanded the Hutus and Tutsis separate so that only the inferior tribal people would be killed. In response, the leadership of this Christian gathering proclaimed, “We will not separate. For we are all one in Christ.” The apostle Paul would have been proud. He had used that same line to stop senseless conflict between Jews and Gentiles.

The recognition of each person’s equality before Christ provided an alternate path to peace that day. The tribal conflict was swallowed up for a moment in the superordinate identity of one true humanity. Unfortunately, that moment did not last long.

The potential power for peace was quickly silenced by the sounds of machine guns spraying bullets and spilling the blood of all those gathered in the name of Jesus. Although Jesus’ kingdom policy had resolved the division and conflict between thousands of Hutus and Tutsis, a few men with Romanesque military tactics believed more strongly that violence would relieve their fears and accomplish their cause. The ensuing murderous scene is too horrifying to imagine.

On the one hand, the massacre stands out as a sign that Caesars are still promising peace and joy by means of bloodshed and dominance. On the other hand, the shared death of Hutus and Tutsis is a symbol of promise for a world that needs to be saved from more projects of dehumanization and destruction.

Jesus can save the world. He can bring peace “on earth” if we embody his ways. That is the “good news of great joy” to proclaim to all that have succumbed to the illusory promises of establishing peace through death, joy through terror, and salvation through domination.

The Gospel Is Bigger Than You

Jesus’ global plan for peace and joy is rarely the gospel we announce. Too often we settle for a tiny, personalized announcement of inner peace. Or we give up on seeing large-scale peace for all people today and relinquish our hopes to an afterlife or idyllic world to come. I hope these failures on our part only reflect a misunderstanding of Jesus and not our fear to follow him.

For a deeper look at Luke’s birth narrative in Roman context and concrete ways Jesus is bringing large-scale peace to the world, read chapter 2 in Reenacting the Way (of Jesus).