Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Why It Is Reasonable to Apply the Bible to Modern Life - Part 2

This is Part 2 in my series discussing the Bible’s relevancy to Modern Life.  Here is Part 1.  Here is Part 3

To sum up, while our technology and circumstances may have changed since then, the basic motivations of life and human nature have not changed in spite of all our advancement.  Even our modern toys fulfill the same needs that they had then.

I realize that many people reject the Bible as an authority in their lives.  Many do so because they don’t really want that standard.  They want to be free from any accountability.  For these people, there will be no argument that will seem reasonable at all because their desire trumps logic.

Others reject the Bible under the belief that it is not reliable either in what it describes (our situation) or in the sense that the text we have today is not what was written then.

I believe that many people who question the Bible’s relevancy to modern life ultimately comes down to the issue of Reliability. 
Is the Bible we have today reliable?  Does the Bible accurately describe the human condition?  Is what we read today anything like what was originally written? 

I would argue that the text we have is reliable and that it does accurately describe the human condition.

First issue:  Does the Bible accurately describe the human condition?

Eastern religions tend to see this world as an illusion to various degrees and problems such as sickness, suffering and death are caused by our insistence that our lives are real and distinct from the divine or because of our attachment to things that ultimately are unreal.  These account for the situation of this world by ultimately denying its reality or significance. 

The dominant philosophical competition in America would be metaphysical naturalism—championed a generation ago by the likes of Carl Sagan and more recently by the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris.  They insist the material universe is all there is and life as we know it evolved.  Death, competition and disease have always been a part of existence and are merely mechanisms that serve as the driving force of evolution.  There is no divine being, no spiritual reality, no existence beyond physical death. 

This worldview, in my opinion, better accounts for the world as we know it than the eastern religions, but naturalism insists it has always been this way and will never change.  To suggest otherwise is merely wishful thinking.  Suffering, disease and death are realities and will always be a part of our lives.  There is no hope or expectation of changing this truth apart from advancement in knowledge and technology. 

The Bible describes in full color the depths of suffering in this world as we know it.  The Bible acknowledges that these issues are real and significant, not merely illusions, unreal or based on ignorance.  Where the Bible differs it insists that the world has not always been this way, it’s not the way the world is supposed to be, and not the way the world will end up. 

The Bible starts in Genesis with God’s ideal—human beings in a world free from corruption and sin… free from death and disease.  But anyone with half a brain can tell that’s not the world we live in now.  So the Bible then describes how everything got to be the way it is—why is there suffering, disease and death. 

Everything changes in Genesis 3 with the Fall.  In that moment of rebellion, sin corrupted not only our nature, but all of creation itself (see Romans 8:21-23). 

A biblical worldview at the point of describing reality is in general agreement with the naturalist—sin, disease, suffering and death are a part of our existence.  We merely disagree on the cause and what, if anything can be done about it.

Much of the Bible illustrates just how bad this fallen nature is—and it is not G rated.  But it offers hope in that it adds what God intends to do (or has done) about it.

The Bible describes people as fallen, damaged and broken.  This fallen nature manifests in the way we act and treat each other. 

We are by nature selfish.  Watch any group of toddlers with toys and you realize you don’t have to teach them to grab a toy out of one kid’s hands and run saying “MINE!!!”.  It takes great effort to teach them to share.  Greed comes naturally--as the reality show Hoarders or all the complaints about corporate executive salaries shows.  But the Bible says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.   Jesus taught us to be servants and to be willing to give up all that you have for the sake of the Gospel and serving others.

We are by nature liars.  Lying comes naturally and early in life as well; especially if we feel like we’re in trouble or don’t want to get caught.  Jesus said we should let our “yes be yes and your no, no”, that we should live lives of integrity and honesty.

We are by nature coveters.  We want what other people have and are willing to resort to taking and justifying it.  I’ve always wondered why this one was listed last among the 10 Commandments, last among those dealing with relationships between people (#5-10) and I finally figured it out—this one is an internal action while the others (murder, stealing, lying etc.) are external ones.  The more we control our desires, our coveting, the less likely we will violate the others.  Jesus said we must be willing to give up everything in order to follow Him, to deny ourself take up our cross and follow Him.

We are by nature killers.  No, not everyone kills someone else, something holds most of us back from that—but it wouldn’t take much to push us to that point.  People have been proven to kill for land, for money, for “love”.  Jesus elevated the bar by saying if you hate someone you have already committed murder in your heart.

We are by nature adulterers.  Much of our culture struggles with their sexuality in some way.  It is our natural tendency to sin sexually.  Yet that is not how the Bible calls us to live.  It actually calls us to live contrary to our natural desire—calls us to refrain from sex before marriage and then to remain faithful to one woman only in a life-long commitment.  Even more, Jesus elevates this calling by saying that a man who looks at a woman lustfully (covetously) has committed adultery in his heart.

In essence, we are self-indulgent narcissists who seek our own pleasure in life often at the expense of someone else.  Anyone who watches the news, watches TV for more than 10 minutes knows these are accurate descriptions.  And there are more.

The fact that we are this way is undeniable and not in dispute.  It’s the cause and cure that are.

This is exactly the kind of people the Bible says we are and the Bible is full of examples of people doing these very things… many of them the ones who are supposed to be close to God.  King David—a man after God’s own heart—was a liar, an adulterer and a murderer.  The Bible has many stories relating to killing for money, jealousy, revenge or women. 

The Bible is not a G rated book but describes our world exactly as it is—the Bible describes human nature accurately.  The Bible does not hide or excuse our sin but reveals it.   It merely assigns the cause of these behaviors to be spiritual—a spiritual failing and corruption.

Again, the Bible accurately describes the human condition, the primary difference it subscribes is the cause—a spiritual problem. 

Much of modern America wants you to believe that people back in the ancient world were just too ignorant to understand human behavior. 

The ancients did not have modern scientific methods, psychological assessment, medical and genetic models to draw from.  As a result of this lack of knowledge (and assumed superiority) the moral judgments of the ancients have no bearing.  In many instances, behaviors that at one time were understood as a moral/behavioral issue have been redefined to be morally neutral, a disease that requires treatment not condemnation.  Consider this statement concerning the role of a modern psychological therapist:
“the therapist will not impose or otherwise induce his personal values on the patient…The exploration and acquisition of more constructive and less neurotically determined values [is] conducted without ethical or moral pressure or suasions of any kind.”

In many instances this type of approach is very helpful and opens up new treatment possibilities.  But in other ways, it ignores the root problem and gives people an excuse to continue in the wrong and damaging behavior—alcoholism and sexuality being contemporary issues.
In contrast, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who grew up as the son of a therapist, said this:
The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness.
Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Bible claims that the Word cuts through our motives, cuts through our excuses, cuts through our rationalizations and exposes our spiritual need. 
Hebrews 4:12—“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart”

At that point, the solution and “treatment” that God provides is laid out—repent (agree with God’s assessment of your sin and turn from it) & believe in the person of Jesus who provides the cure for our condition through the Cross and Resurrection.

To say that ancient cultures were ignorant and thus incapable of making a just assessment fails on two points.

First—those cultures had far fewer restraints of “proper behavior” than ours and thus witnessed far more of the depths that sinful behavior can sink to—sometimes in participation and blessing of their religious belief.  They saw a wider range of depravity due to the close proximity of multiple cultures, with invading armies moving through and pillaging, etc.  Religion in many of these cultures were highly sexualized, warfare and victory was often license to do anything with those captured.  I believe we take for granted the general restraint that exists in our society that prevents the kind of rampant behavior those cultures faced every year “in the spring when kings go off to war.”  This increased suffering and victimization.

They were far more familiar with death and disease.  Fewer and fewer of us even slaughter our own animals for food anymore, rather we (myself included) pick up a sanitary package at the local store.  We didn’t make the cuts or watch the creature die like they did.  Similarly, when people died then, preparation and burial rituals were very hands on by those closest to the deceased.  We let someone else do it and only show up after the person has been prepared, dressed and covered in make-up.  Most of our young men these days don’t have to serve in the military or defend their life on a bloody battlefield in hand to hand combat.  Those that did then and do now experience many traumas whether they are injured or not.  Many of the diseases they dealt with would be considered superficial or easily treated now—rashes, boils—but they had to endure them for extended periods and at close proximity.

Now you’d be right to argue that the way we do things decreases disease and death, but it also removes our general familiarity with it.  For them, it was all day, every day, every year.

They would argue that we, in general, are ignorant—of how rampant and debased humanity can be, of firsthand experience of the horrors and victimization of war, of the messiness of disease and death.

Second—the assertion that their ignorance and lack of modern knowledge prevents us from taking what they say with any authority assumes that there is no God who can and might speak to a people and reveal His opinion.

Those who make this argument, whether they intend to or not, are saying that the Bible is more a reflection of the human author’s opinions and culture than it is of God’s opinion.  They argue that IF God did speak (which is suspect), then what we have has been so distorted or corrupted by human copyists or translators that what it says cannot be trusted.

This leads to the Second Issue: which I will take up in Part 3

Is the biblical text we have reliable or has it been corrupted beyond trust?

Friday, June 01, 2012

Why It is Reasonable to Apply the Bible to Modern Life - Part 1

This is part one of a discussion of why it is reasonable to apply the Bible to modern life.

I recently engaged in dialogue with a friend who made some serious and legitimate statements.  He considered it unreasonable for people to believe that a collection of documents written 2000+ years ago should have any bearing or influence on life, and particularly policy, in a modern 21st Century world.

Of course, he was talking about the Bible.

The person raising the point is not a believer (self-proclaimed) and from that doesn’t believe the Bible to bear any authority in his life.  But I do believe that.

The issue is legitimate.  Why should anyone think that documents written so long ago, to a totally different culture, lifestyle, educational and technological level should have any bearing on life today?

That’s a great question.  However at the heart of this question are some assumptions.

1.     They were ignorant
2.    They were superstitious
3.    They were simple-minded for simple lives
4.    They had no understanding of modern science, medicine, technology etc…
5.    They are outdated

On the Flip Side
1.     We’ve Changed
2.    We’re Not Like That
3.    We’ve Improved
4.    We Know Better
5.    We’re Superior
6.    We’re not Limited like they were

Can you tell the question ultimately stems from an exalted view of our modern sense of superiority?  It’s based out of pride and assumptions of superiority.

But that is a bit of a fallacy.  I fully expect that in 100-200 years the people then will look at us the same way we do them.  Does that mean we are not smart, not capable of understanding our situation?  Of course not.  Wouldn’t you be insulted to hear the future’s opinion of us today?  Of course you would.

The fact of the matter is that we have not changed nearly as much as we think.

Sure our technological toys are more advanced—but all of our technology fulfills the same needs that they had then—they’ve just become more complicated and/or expensive.  Our modern inventions are only addressing age old necessities.

·         Cell Phones, Satellites, email & text messaging – address needs of communication of information faster than hand carried letters or word of mouth messengers.  Strangely, most people then only had to hear a message once or twice in order to memorize it.  Today we have the attention span of a gnat (Twitter) and can barely remember the names of our friends, our phone number or social security number.  How is this an improvement?  In the same way, can anyone really say our writing quality, style and vocabulary has improved? 

·         Cars, Airplanes, Ships – issues of transportation for travel or cargo--we still use wheels, right?  We have improved the speed and reliability of this need.  A trip that would take them months takes us a day.  And yet I don’t think they had to deal with Jet-lag and I doubt their travel had the same environmental impact of our modern efforts.  What would we go back to if we got rid of Big Oil driven machines again?

·         Medicine-- Surgery & Antibiotics, etc… - they got sick then too.  We have vastly improved things in this category but we’re still meeting the same need.  Given their circumstances, I’d wager they were far more familiar with sickness and disease and loss than we are today in our sterilized & sanitized world with relatively quick cures, quick pill ability.  It is strange however to consider that many of the remedies that they used then are still in use today and are sometimes a better form of treatment.  For those of you who lean toward alternative medicines & treatments, realize you’re saying that the old ways of treating sickness and disease are better than the modern.  Acupuncture is not a modern invention.

·         Farming – sure our tractors and fertilizers and genetic improvements have improved yields—but keep in mind that they grew more varieties (a lot of ag scientists are really beginning to worry about this), in more less than ideal conditions than we do.  Remember we did not invent irrigation, nor the plow, nor domesticate the crops we use in the first place.  Also remind me again why Organic is gaining popularity?

·         Television & Movies – we are more visual but we’re fulfilling the entertainment need.  They listened to stories passed down from generations.  They learned family history, they talked together.  Their entertainment better brought people together in fellowship and shared knowledge.  Our entertainment spreads us out to where we are all watching a different show on a different TV or computer.  Is it any wonder that families are torn apart?

·         Sports – yeah, football is pretty awesome, but they had sports then as well with very grand arenas and large audiences—they invented the Coliseum/Stadium we just made them bigger—though the bleacher seat is still uncomfortable—why haven’t we improved that?  With the growing popularity of MMA fighting does anyone else think we’re regressing to a gladiator form of entertainment?  How long will it be before the matches are to the death?  I think there’s a large population that would watch and pay for it.

·         Education & Science – in the United States we are attempting to educate more people and likely have a greater percentage of literate citizens that in most of recorded history.  But our education system is falling apart (throwing money at it won’t fix it) and I do not believe we are not producing the kind of elite statesmen and women that have existed in generations past.  We tend to think that people in the past were barely able to count to five and no more than 20 assuming they had all their fingers and toes.  We tend to think that a lack of widespread literacy means a lot of stupid people.  That is far from true.  Education level does equate to intelligence or smarts—as I work customer service for college students—let me assure you that college does not equate to intelligence or even reading comprehension.

·         There are more examples that I’m sure you can think of.  But practically all of them will be fulfilling a function and need that existed then too.

From these examples I hope you see that the basic human needs are largely the same and all of our advanced technology are simply meeting these needs in a different way.  Their concerns were the same.  They needed to make a living, they cared about their family, they had to work to put food on the table, they worried about the future.

Human nature and life has not really changed… and never will no matter how advanced we get.

Which is a significant reason why it is not unreasonable to apply the Bible to modern life.   

Some of our exact circumstances may have changed but human nature and the basic pursuits of life have not.

We still have families & neighbors, still have jobs, still have children.  We still get angry, we are still tempted to lie or steal.  We still struggle with our sexuality, still struggle with marriage and divorce, still struggle with betrayal and conflict. 

The Bible speaks to all of those and more. 

I am convinced that the Bible accurately describes human nature, our tendencies and our place in the universe.  It describes a people that are broken and selfish.  The Bible calls us to better behavior, a higher standard of ethic than our natural tendencies.  Even if you do not embrace all of the theological beliefs in the Bible, the basic ethics that it calls us to will continue to be a benefit to any society.

In its most basic form, the Bible calls people to think of others more than themselves, calls people to not gratify every desire or whim that crosses their mind.  That there are behaviors and practices that harm others directly and indirectly that we should avoid.  The Bible calls us to a life of radical integrity, service, sacrifice and purpose.

This is part one of why it is reasonable to apply the Bible to modern life.  Part two will focus on the issue of Reliability. Part 3 will cover the reliability of the documents themselves.