theology

Truth and Happiness

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pascals pensees

“We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find  only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.”   -Pascal

A friend of mine recommended the book Christianity for Modern Pagans, a book on Pascal’s Pensées, out lined and explained by Peter Kreeft. This friend, a pastor, has said he has read it over twenty times and could not stop saying how good it was. I bought the book, but was thinking it couldn’t be that good. Forty-five pages in, I think it is that good. Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, is considered the first apologist to the modern world, sitting on top of the Christian Middle Ages as the Enlightenment took root in Europe. The wisdom of this book is striking and compelling. Today, I am going to just share some excerpts from the book.

“[Concerning the above quote], these are the four fundamental truths, the data, about the human condition always and everywhere. No philosophy that ignores them is worth a first glance; no philosophy that has no explanation for them is worth a second. Ultimately, no philosophy except Christianity is worth a third glance and our belief, because only Christianity has a satisfactory explanation for these four facts. This is another way of summarizing Pascal’s fundamental overall argument in the Pensées.

Truth (our head’s food) and happiness (our heart’s food) are the two things everyone wants, and not in crumbs but in great loaves; not in raindrops but in waves. Yet these are the two things no one gets except in little crumbs and droplets.

…Since no one can change human nature, no one can make us stop desiring truth and happiness; and no mere human being can give us truth or happiness. We may mediate these two things, but we cannot create them; we are aqueducts, not fountains.

…Science and technology shield modern man from a clear knowledge of these four fundamental truths of Pascal, for science (or rather scientism) offers us the illusion that we now know the Truth when in fact we only know some truths, and technology has given us comforts but not contentment. “

Therapeutic and Conditional Forgiveness

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Last week I was challenged to think about the ideas I have on forgiveness. There were a few things in this post by Kevin DeYoung (which I was directed to from this post) that made me pause and consider my ideas, ask a few questions, and then spend some time studying the Bible.

Therapeutic & Conditional Forgiveness?

 “Many Christians, influences by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.”

First, I thought “therapeutic” was a very interesting way to view forgiveness. I had never even considered it, and I truly wondered what I do. I know that I am to forgive others, and that I want to be forgiven. I know that God expects me to forgive, and that my own forgiveness depends on it (Mt 6:12-15). I wondered, since I don’t really pay attention to how or why I forgive, what is my motive for forgiving others? Is it with a motive of self-preservation, with a grumpy ‘Fine, I’ll forgive’ but only because I myself want forgiveness? Is that my deepest motive? I had to consider whether I forgive “therapeutically”, with my motive being just to get my emotions under control, jettisoning my offended feelings so I can move on with a very happy day. Or, is it that, when I look at all those ugly emotions swirling in my mind and heart, I get rid of them because they make me ‘look bad’ to God? Do I just take a “breather”, compose myself, looking at all those toxic feelings of anger and bitterness scattered throughout my mind, the elevated fight reflex coursing through my blood, and ffoorrggiivveeee…. Ah, I feel much better.

DeYoung was commenting on a selection from “Unpacking Forgiveness” by Chris Brauns. Brauns writes:

“In the therapeutic line of thinking, forgiveness is a private matter that means shutting down anger, bitterness, and resentment. In other words, Christians should always forgive automatically. Because therapeutic forgiveness is based on feelings, it posits that people may even find it necessary to forgive God.”

The other part of this article that made me pause was this:

“The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (for God, and it should be for us), but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent. No bitterness either way. No revenge. But forgiveness, and the reconciliation that should follow, is a commitment to those who repent. (emphasis mine)

Chris Brauns explains:

This book has argued that forgiveness should be defined as a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”

Conditioned upon repentance? Those words really took me off guard. Is that true? At this point, I was becoming very aware of how fuzzy my knowledge is on forgiveness. Is this true? Or, since I try to distance myself from church divisions, is this controversial and debatable? I scrolled down to the comments section to see what other people were thinking and saying. Some were saying things like “finally Biblical teaching”, while others were asking for scripture and clarification. At this point, I decided that was where I should turn: to scripture.

Investigating Scripture

I spent some time studying the Bible to get at what God has said about forgiveness, and I discovered that is very clear that God does place conditions on Christians.

(1) Mt 6: 14-15 tells us that we must forgive in order to be forgiven. If we don’t, God will not forgive us. It seems that this condition is placed on us so that we recognize the seriousness of our own sin. The note in my Bible (Apologetics Study Bible, HCSB) states:

 “Forgiveness is an attitude that follows from recognition of the seriousness of our sin. A person with an unforgiving heart toward others shows that he does not take his own sin seriously and has not appropriated God’s forgiveness.”

(2) Within the church, the offended person must confront the offender. Mt 18:15-17 and Lk 17:3-4 are clear about this, and this has got to be one of the most difficult things to do. It depends a great deal on relationships. If you know the people well, it is much easier to bring something like this up. Then there is the gray area of church acquaintance, where you know people, but you really don’t know them well enough to confront them with sin. Or that they would confront me with sin, either. Honestly, I don’t really obey this, and it is just because I am a social coward. It is much easier to do the “therapeutic” part, scrub the ugliness off my consciousness until I ‘feel’ right, and then move on. But I if I am honest, I know that there is a barrier of varying thickness between me and that other person.

(3) Within the church, the offender must repent before receiving forgiveness. Mt 18:15-17 and Lk 17:3-4 are clear on this as well. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” I have to ask myself, do I do this? If I (or we) don’t act on the first command to confront the offender, will we ever hear the words ‘I repent’? It is almost as if, by being non-confrontational, we short circuit God’s plan for refining his people in the church.

And we don’t even need to see any action (repentance) at all to forgive. Just so we are all on the same page, “feeling sorry” is only part of repentance.  I grew up thinking this was all there was to repentance. The other part is “to be disposed to change one’s life for the better.” God expects penitence and a desire to change and make things right. Zaccheus repented when, to those he extorted money from, he paid back four times.

If someone came to me seven times in one day ‘repenting’ of sin, I would have to question his definition of repentance! God knows this, of course! That is why he tells Peter in Mt 18:22 to forgive seventy times seven, and then tells the parable of the unforgiving slave. It sounds ludicrous to accept ‘I repent’ that many times (490) and to forgive, but it must be exactly what God sees. He is the master and we owe him 10,000 talents1. The “actions” of repentance seems to be what God is looking for—not the work, not at first, but the humility to acknowledge our sin and speak about it to who we have sinned against. If I imagine myself sinning that many times in a day and having to progressively return to confess my sin, I see myself getting more and more embarrassed and alarmed at myself. This reminds me of Paul’s description of godly sorrow in 2 Cor 7 and how it leads to repentance. This alarm at myself, at my ineptitude and stupidity, though, mixed with pride can lead worldly sorrow, to giving up and, ultimately, to death.

(4) I also read the emotions and virtues associated with forgiveness. Eph 4:30 and Col 3:13 tell us to remove bitterness, anger, insult, slander, and to put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience—then forgive others as the Lord forgave you. Here I can see where a therapy mentality could develop. We are to scrub out the ugliness, we are to be kind, but it is from the viewpoint of our relationship to God. Utterly destitute, God forgives us based on an immaterial ‘I repent’, a promise only. This is the comparison, the condition: as the Lord forgave us.

(5) There is one point that Jesus forgave the mass of people that were executing him. He asks God to forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing. There is no rebuke, no conversation with them, no reconciliation sought, just a plea to God based on the offender’s ignorance and slavery to sin. If people are just mean to us, in whatever way, I don’t think we necessarily have a responsibility to ‘make it right’. I don’t think we can expect or demand repentance prior to forgiveness.

Concluding Thoughts

So, I think what I have discovered is that God does command us to get control of the ugly emotions we feel when offended, but it is not for us so that we can feel better. It is so that reconciliation can occur between Christians. Forgiveness is conditional and challenging and, once again, proves that man did not write the Bible. Our nature is to satisfy ourselves, and I think that is what DeYoung is getting at: “forgiving” others is not about an emotional shower. Instead, except in the case of those crucifying Jesus, forgiveness seems to be absolutely relational. The questions raised by DeYoung’s article and my subsequent study have given me much to think about, and much to practice.

Notes:

1I just finished a history of the Peloponnesian War, and one talent was enough to pay for the supplies and rowers for one Athenian ship for one month. Athens had ~6000 talents in their treasury, and they estimated it was enough to pay for 3 years war.

Thoughts on Intelligence and the Material World

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I was reading in Signs of Intelligence yesterday and was struck by the meaning of “intelligence”, as derived from its Latin roots. It comes from intellegere, to discern or comprehend, but literally from the preposition inter, meaning between, and the verb lego, meaning to choose or select. Thus, intelligence consists of choosing between, choosing from a range of competing possibilities.

Dembski, in his essay, was relating this to Intelligent Design, but I was brought back to what I have been reading in The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. In chapter two, Lewis is describing the rationale for a neutral material world for people to live in. He writes first about God’s omnipotence, describing it as the power to do the intrinsically possible, not the intrinsically impossible (such as the argument that asks God to make a rock so big He can’t lift it; this is a non-entity and nonsense). Lewis then builds on this with the need for a material world (Nature):

“I am going to submit that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’ Nature.

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a ‘self’, can exist except in contrast with an ‘other’, a something which is not the self. It is against an environment and preferably a social environment, an environment of other selves, that the awareness of Myself stands out.”

He is saying that without a society, we would not be able to self-actualize.  There must be a fixed space and time environment available in order for co-existence, and there must be a material world that is neutral. We must be able to act on it and manipulate it in order to exercise choice and free will. This means that if I cut down a tree and use it to build a house, another ‘self’ cannot keep that tree for shade. But if God were to pop in and prevent me from cutting down the tree, I then cease to have free will. If He popped in to stop every act of self-will against other people (i.e. violence, oppression), free will would cease to exist.

In order to have intelligence, for choosing between, we must be allowed to make the choice. This must also allow for evil. So it seems, we either have free will with good and evil, or give up our freedom and cease to be self-conscious. There is no in between.

Later in chapter three, some ideas Lewis talks about, with regard to the material world, struck me. We were made not primarily to love God, but that He may love us, “that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. An argument can be made that God is selfish or possessive, caring only for His satisfaction in molding us and caring little for our contentment.

Lewis first asks which of us would value the love of a friend that cared for our happiness but did not object to our becoming dishonest. To the question ‘Is God an egoist or altruistic?’, he brings a point I have never really considered. Lewis specifically isolates our language and definitions to our own material world.

“The truth is that this antithesis between egoistic and altruistic love cannot be unambiguously applied to the love of God for His creatures. Clashes of interest, and therefore opportunities either of selfishness or unselfishness, occur only between beings inhabiting a common world; God can no more be in competition with a creature than Shakespeare can be n competition with Viola. [a character from Twelfth Night; I had to look it up as I don’t know much Shakespeare…don’t judge me.]”

So words like selfish and possessive and even jealous are words linked to situations we observe in our material world, our world of choice and free will. Yet we really are in the interesting position of a fictional character observing owns writer. That is a very interesting concept to consider and ponder.

Lewis then brings the illustration of the material world to full dimension for me by using the Incarnation.

A modern pantheistic philosopher has said, ‘When the Absolute falls into the sea it becomes a fish’; in the same way, we Christians can point to the Incarnation and say that when God empties Himself of His glory and submits to those conditions under which alone egoism and altruism have a clear meaning, He is seen to be wholly altruistic.”

This is so amazing to me and makes the Incarnation clearer in my mind. In the place where we have exact meaning of words, we see Jesus selflessly acting out the Father’s will. The son of Man came to serve, to wash our feet, to teach and challenge us. All this must influence our concept of God the Father, existing outside of the material world.