Thursday, September 22, 2011

the science of spirituality

The NPR series, "the science of spirituality" leads off with...

More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.

And then under the "god chemical" article, it continues...

At Johns Hopkins University, research suggests that chemicals that act on the serotonin system trigger mystical experiences that are life-altering. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps regulate mood and sleep. Now those neurologists -- and others -- are replicating studies from the 1960s in which patients with end-stage cancer were given LSD to see if they were convinced that life exists beyond death. The research raises the question, is God a delusion created by brain chemistry, or is brain chemistry a necessary conduit for people to reach God?  [bold print added]

I'm not sure what to file this under, maybe pseudo-science, or pop science at its worse

Quite a few of the posts in the response section latched on to these "findings" as further "scientific proof" that religion is a delusion. But is this the case?  One post to the article noted...

You must keep in mind that this monitors the effect and not the cause. Many years ago they discovered that people who are expert meditators enter a brain state called Alpha. So, they taught people how to enter Alpha through use of neurofeedback machinery. The result? None of the people was actually meditating. That is, being in Alpha is a side effect of meditation, but you can be in Alpha without actually meditating. As a Christian, and a physicist, I am frustrated by "science" like this. The experimentor has no way of knowing the nature of the individual's actual experience, so the measurement is meaningless.

But the issue is even deeper than that.  Not only is there confusion of cause and effect, there is also a confusion of reality with the perception of reality.  In other words, if we can understand how we perceive something then apparently we have some kind of explanation of what it is we are perceiving (or not actually perceiving, in the case of God).  This does not follow at all.

For example, you could put two people into MRI machines, where you can watch their brain activity.  Then you make this statement to them: "You have an advanced stage of cancer."  Chances are, in both individuals, you will have an area related to fear-responses light up with activity.  You can now identify the part of the brain which is associated with fear.  But the fear response does not actually tell you anything about the true medical condition of either person.  It has no bearing on that.  Perhaps "you have an advanced stage of cancer" is true of one but not of the other.  Or neither, or both.  

What cannot be said is that, because we know the area of the brain associated with fear, we can say anything about the reality of the thing being feared.  The thing may be true, or it may only be imagined.  Either way the perception does not tell you with certainty whether the thing perceived is true or not.

I think this is why mysticism (or a mystical feeling about God) is not an infallible sign of the presence of God or genuine contact with him. Christianity has always based much more reliance upon the multiple testimonies of prophets and their fulfilled prophecies, and upon the apostles who were eyewitnesses of Jesus.  My Christian testimony includes experiences that might be described as mystical, but my faith rests on the objective and historical work of Jesus Christ.


walk through the temple

This is a very cool site.  UCLA Urban Simulation Team in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority have made videos of what the Temple built by Herod in Jerusalem would have  looked like in Jesus' day.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

the decline of the west

Here is an insightful article by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain.  He says we need to see 9/11 and its aftermath from the Muslim perspective, and particularly in light of the social theory of 14th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun.

Ibn Khaldun's theory was that every urban civilisation becomes vulnerable when it grows decadent from within. People live in towns and get used to luxuries. The rich grow indolent, the poor resentful. There is a loss of asabiyah, a keyword for Khaldun. Nowadays we would probably translate it as "social cohesion". People no longer think in terms of the common good. They are no longer willing to make sacrifices for one another. Essentially they lose the will to defend themselves. They then become easy prey for the desert dwellers, the people used to fighting to stay alive.

Al-Qaeda's application of this principle -- especially after the fall of Soviet Communism during Russia's occupation of Afghanistan -- was not to try to defeat the immoral West on western lands, but to provoke America to come and, like Russia, be mired in defeat in Afghanistan.

Rabbi Sacks says that in the West we focus on Islamic extremism as the primary threat, when the real threat is the loss of our own values and cohesion, which makes our defeat almost certain.  

It is a peculiarity of the Abrahamic monotheisms that they see, at the heart of society, the idea of covenant. Covenantal politics are politics with a purpose, driven by high ideals, among them the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the rule of justice and compassion, and concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. G.K. Chesterton called America a "nation with the soul of a church". Britain used to be like that too. In the 1950s there was no television at certain hours on Sunday so as not to deter churchgoing. Sundays helped keep families together, families helped keep communities together, and communities helped keep society together. I, a Jew growing up in a Christian nation, did not feel threatened by this. I felt supported by it — much more than I do now in an ostensibly more tolerant but actually far more abrasive, rude and aggressive society.

He ends with this admonition...

None of us should be in any doubt as to the seriousness of what is at stake. Europe today is pursuing the chimera of societies without a shared moral code, nations without a collective identity, cultures without a respect for tradition, groups without a concern for the common good, and politics without the slightest sense of history. Ibn Khaldun, were he alive, would tell them precisely where that leads.  The question is not radical Islam but, does the West believe in itself any more? 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

the fountain we seek

Here's a beautiful exposition of gospel truth in exalted prose by French pastor and evangelist Jean Cauvin...

If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him.’ 
If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing.  
If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; 
if purity, in his conception; 
if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. 
If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; 
if acquittal, in his condemnation; 
if remission of the curse, in his cross; 
if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; 
if purification, in his blood; 
if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; 
if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; 
if newness of life, in his resurrection; 
if immortality, in the same; 
if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; 
if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; 
if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge.  
In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.

(--John Calvin, quoted by Justin Taylor in Between Two Worlds Blog)

on grace

"And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:16-17 ESV) 

"Friends, you can't begin to understand the gospel or the Bible if you don't know the meaning of 'grace'. ... If 'glory' means the 'outward shining of the inward being of God', grace is the 'free and unmerited favor of God.'  In one word grace is generosity.  The grace of God is the generosity of God. Grace is God's gracious kindness to the undeserving.  Grace is God taking the initiative, God coming to our rescue, pursuing us even to the cross. Grace is God stooping, God loving, God serving, God lifting, God taking the initiative.  Grace, like glory, is seen most vividly at the cross."  

(John Stott, "Jesus As the Son Makes God Knowable", sermon at All Souls, Langham Place, 2000) 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

on water to wine

Chris Faith, on John 2:1-12, from Sunday's sermon:

So why would the eternal Son of God begin to display His glory by such a frivolous miracle as turning water into wine? Why not start with a big bang? Why not raise the dead, or feed thousands of hungry people with one boy’s bag lunch?

I’m convinced Jesus began by turning water into wine because He wanted to make clear from the very beginning the nature of God’s New Covenant, the reason the Son of God became the Son of Man. He came to reconcile us to God, to usher in a whole new way of intimacy with God.

Jesus wanted us to know He came to start a new chapter in man’s relationship to God. The reality is we can’t measure up to God’s holiness. Water pots for washing don’t bring us into God’s holiness. But Jesus’ death on our behalf truly does. 
Hebrews 7:18-19 says it this way: "The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.”
You see, Jesus’ message was that with His coming, a whole new age of intimacy with God is now possible. Here is what the prophet Hosea had to say about this New Covenant, in Hosea 2:14-16... "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, Bring her into the wilderness, And speak kindly to her. Then I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt. And it will come about in that day," declares the LORD, "That you will call Me HUSBAND and will no longer call Me MASTER.”  (Hosea 2:14-16)
With this sign at a beautiful wedding feast, Jesus points out that He had come to change the very nature of the way men relate to God. This is the marvel of the New Covenant. 

Chris's message is here.

Click on picture to enlarge.

pN on husbands and wives

Good friend and fellow pastor, Neil, on Proverbs 12:4....

"An excellent wife is the crown of her husband but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones."  (Proverbs 12:4)   

Hey—I didn’t write it.  But it  is a truism that I think bears out under observation.   Despite our topsy-turvy, top on bottom and bottom on top culture, there is a natural order to how families are supposed to work.  Husbands are supposed to be husbands and wives are supposed to be wives.  Husbands are not supposed to be wives and wives are not supposed to be husbands.  Specific job descriptions are in part, up for discussion perhaps, but the basic roles and foundational definition that there IS a thing called “husband,” the idea of which God created, and there IS a thing called “wife,” the idea also which God created, stands.  And if a woman works at being an excellent wife, she is the best thing in her husband’s life, even eclipsing having an excellent kid and certainly eclipsing having an excellent job, truck, neighborhood, etc.  An excellent wife, as it were, is at the top of his life, and shines with glory OF him.  She isn’t him.  She is herself, uniquely “her” and beautifully individual.  But she shines around him.  No, she isn’t dominated by him and no she isn’t overwhelmed by him and no she isn’t manipulated by him—if he does that his buddies “in the gate” need to kick his t*il and insist that he treat his wife like a crown, that he cherish her, that she hold the place that a valued crown should hold.  But all of that said, she is still a complement to him.  Conversely, because a husband and a wife are so bonded, if she who shames him, she who does things that humiliate him this woman rots him from the inside out.  He cannot escape it, he cannot really distract himself from it, it is a “cancer,” an “osteosarcoma” to him.  That is bad.  That is no minor condition.  That is rottenness in his bones.  This proverbs writer must have observed this contrast three thousand years ago.  It is not different today.  Husbands need to cherish their wives.  Wives need to bless their husbands.  That’s just the way it is.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

a prayer for 9/11

Written by Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky:

Lord as we gather,
celebrating your glory and goodness,
we acknowledge the shadow of today’s anniversary.

Together, we remember September 11, 2001.
We mourn for the lives lost in New York City,
Washington D. C., and on Flight 93.

We lament death’s reign,
the visible and invisible forces of evil,
the principalities and powers of this dark world,
and the evil that lurks in the hearts of all men . . . including our own.

With the Psalmist, we cry:

“How long, Oh Lord?
How long will your enemies scoff?
How long will you withhold your justice
from a world that is desparate to see it?”

We lament a world at war, and we ask you for peace

In Afghanistan
in Iraq
in Libya
in Israel and Palestine
in Egypt and Syria, and all of the nations of the earth that long for freedom from oppression.

We ask for protection over our loved ones and families who serve overseas,
we pray for the fatherless and the widow,
for the poor and oppressed.

We lift up our global leaders
that by your grace they might lead with wisdom and justice
and work for peace.

And we acknowledge that all such hopes and longings point us to one who will soon return and bring an everlasting peace and justice.

Together we proclaim:

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the LORD!

(Posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

on gratitude

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe..." (Hebrews 12:28 ESV) 

Gratitude is the third of three things the Heidelberg Catechism says is necessary to know in order to live and die happily in the Lord: The misery of our fallen-ness (guilt), how we are redeemed (grace), and finally, gratitude the basis of our subsequent living...

Question 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort [of a saving relationship with Christ], mayest live and die happily? 
Answer: Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.  (Heidelberg Catechism, 1563)

Here are some quotes regarding gratitude, it's necessity and nature:  

"May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light." (Colossians 1:11-12) 
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."  (Colossians 3:16-17)
"Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!  Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praiseGive thanks to him; bless his name! For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.  (Psalm 100)
"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."  (G.K. Chesterton)
"Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world." (John Milton)
"Joy is the simplest form of gratitude."  (Karl Barth)
“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” (Thornton Wilder)
"In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 1949)

"Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, - a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy 
praise." (George Herbert)

Friday, September 2, 2011

it all depends

Listening to a John Stott message on "Jesus Is Lord", I heard this poem that he used to describe the morality of our relativistic world"

It all depends on where you are;
It all depends on who you are;
It all depends on how you feel;
It all depends on what you feel;
It all depends on how you're raised;
It all depends on what is praised;
What's right today is wrong tomorrow;
Joy in France, in England sorrow;
It all depends on points of view;
Australia, or Timbuctoo;
In Rome do as the Romans do;
If tastes just happen to agree,
Then you have morality;
But where there are conflicting trends,
It all depends, it all depends.

Here's a good intro to a Christian view of morality.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

the vocation of thought

Ravi Zacharias on thinking, and thoughts...

One of the tragic casualties of our age has been that of the contemplative life—a life that thinks, a life thinks things through, and more particularly, thinks God’s thoughts after Him. A person sitting at his or her desk staring out the window would never be assumed to be working. No! Thinking is not equated with work. Yet, had Newton under his tree, or Archimedes in his bathtub, bought into that prejudice, some natural laws would still be up in the air or buried under an immovable rock. Pascal's Pensees, or "Thoughts," a work that has inspired millions, would have never been penned.

What is even more destructive is the assumption that silence is inimical to life. The radio in the car, Muzak in the elevator, and the symphony entertaining callers "on hold" all add up as grave impediments to personal reflection. In effect, the mind is denied the privilege of living with itself even briefly and is crowded with outside impulses to cope with aloneness. Aldous Huxley's indictment, "Most of one's life... is one prolonged effort to prevent thinking," seems frightfully true.

Read more on "The Vocation of Thought"