Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #2

Yesterday we read about how our first step in living the life of a stoic is to distinguish between what is in our control and not in our control. In chapter two Epictetus turns to a short discussion of desire and aversion. Desire seeks to get what we want, and aversion seeks to avoid what we don't want. Thus, if we desire things that are out of our control we will inevitably end up unhappy. Likewise, if we try to avoid things that are out of our control we will inevitably end up unhappy. Epictetus illustrates this by pointing out that we will be disappointed if we direct our aversion towards illness, death, or poverty. 

Thus we are to only dislike those things that are in our control. We can control our judgments and intentions. Thus, we should only concern ourselves with directing our aversion to attitudes, intentions, and states of mind that oppose justice, temperance, prudence, and courage. 

As for desire he recommends that we set aside for the moment. We will be disappointed if we desire things outside of our control, and as beginners we cannot yet get virtue so desiring it will also lead to disappointment. As a daily practice we choose the good and refuse the bad, being careful to exercise our judgment in a disciplined and detached way. 

I'm not sure what to make of setting aside desire for virtue for the moment, especially since Epictetus encourages us to practice choice and refusal, which implies that we choose virtue (the only good). Perhaps he means to guard us from overenthusiastic dreams of virtue that then don't translate into action. In any case I can't see a reason to not desire that I act with justice and temperance towards my children. 

Reading this passage reminds me of how many things I seek to avoid that are outside of my control, and the stress that it brings on my life. A few months ago someone slashed the tires on my vehicle.  For weeks after the crime I would jump at any sound at night, I didn't sleep well because I was worried about the criminal coming back to do it again. But his actions are out of my control. Additionally we cannot secure our material possessions against time, chance, and theft. My vehicle is outside of what I can truly control. Repeating this to myself helped me to move on and start sleeping better again.

More importantly, if I had focused not the chance that my tires might be slashed again, but on how I acted towards my family and others, then I could have been happy through this circumstance. I can control if I speak to my family in love and act justly towards them regardless of what ever else is going on in my life. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #1

Epictetus starts his famous Enchiridion with the observation that somethings are under our control, and some are not. This simple and obvious observation sits at the heart of his system of thought and living. What is in our control Epictetus insists are our judgment, our desire, aversion, and mental faculties in general.  Everything else is deemed to be outside our control, even our own bodies. 

Epictetus insists on this distinction at the outside because it guards from sorrow. Mistaking things that are out of our control to be in our control will lead to suffering when things don't go as we plan. If we understand what really belongs to us then we will be unhindered in our goals and no one will ever be able to harm us. 

Because the rewards are so great we should seek to implement this truth in our lives. Everyday we must ask ourselves if our impressions of things are accurate, and then if what we encounter in our daily living is in or out of our control. If it is out of our control, we should not be concerned with it. 

If my goal is to lose weight, I am seeking something outside of my control in an absolute sense. Of course we can undertake actions to cause our bodies to lose weight, but I have noticed very little direct control. You may eat right for a week and lose no weight. You may cheat on your diet and lose 2 pounds. You might be stuck at a plateau for a couple weeks only to lose five pounds quickly.

As in dieting, so in life in general. Although we can take actions that make certain events probable, we cannot directly control external things. I can take every effort to cut a tile correctly and it might snap in half. I can follow every step in a recipe with utmost care, but the food still taste bad. Life doesn't go this way all the time, but if our focus is on things that we cannot control we will be met with disappointment on a daily basis. 

The way of freedom and happiness is to instead only focus on what we do control. And so we count ourselves successful if we keep to our dietary plans whether or not we lose the weight. We cut the tile as best we can and count our desire and intention and the action that flows from them as what matters. Breaking a tile is out of our control, but our intentions and desires are in our control.

If we refuse to turn aside from keeping this discipline, if we only focus on what we actually do control, then we will find happiness and freedom. The directness and brevity of this statement should not mislead as to the difficulty of accepting what is in and out of our control and the need to re-orientate ourselves to this truth constantly. To that end I encourage you to forgive yourself and move on quickly whenever you find yourself focused on things not in your control. Don't beat yourself up, just ask of the next thing that presents itself as important to you: Are you in my control? If not, don't worry about it one bit. 

The Pilgrim part 3

The Sitting Room (part 2)

After praying, the patriarch took up their conversation again. "Pilgrim, I would know how you came to be with us here in the kingdom of the Sovereign?"

At this question, Valfardare hesitated, measuring carefully how he would respond. How much should he share? He did not feel at ease with the Patriarch and his religious devotion, but he and his family had shown him kindness. Valfardare decided to share the circumstances surrounding his journey, leaving out the most intimate details of his ordeal. 

“Honestly,” started Valfardare “the situation in my homeland is not good. My people are dying and I don't even know how many are left. A plague is destroying our country. Whole cities have been emptied. I wouldn't be surprised if areas as large as this island kingdom lie barren.” 

The patriarch nodded solemnly. 

Valfardare continued. “The situation was still getting worse when I left. I remember travelling by fields full of bodies consumed by the plague, set ablaze to prevent it from spreading. The nights were bright with orange light because of the flame. There were moments when it felt like we were surrounded by walls of fire.” Valfardare stopped talking as images of his suffering invaded his inward vision. 

"I am sorry," said the patriarch, breaking the silence. "What you describe is truly horrible. Our oracle recently spoke of something similiar. He likened the burning wickedness of the soul to a lake of fire, and that the Sovereign, in His spotless justice reserves an eternal burning for those who refuse His will and pursue wickedness. If not for the forgiveness of the Sovereign's Arbiter, that would be the fate of us all, the justly deserved retribution against our evil. I imagine you would understand that image better than I. It is a shame that your country perishes without the forgiveness of the Sovereign."

Valfardare suffered silently as the patriarch spoke. The image that he saw was the face of his only daughter, eaten and rotted with plague. He had done everything he could do to protect her, taken every precaution, yet the plague came to take her just as it had stolen the others. He was helpless as she began coughing and vomiting up her insides, slowly bleeding from her ears and nose, soiling her once bright clothes. When she had finally died, he laid her on a mat, tucked her favorite teddy under her arm, brought her to the field of the dead, and gave her body to the fire. His only consolation as he walked away weeping was that her mother had passed long before having to witness this hell. The patriarch had said that it was the burning wickedness of the soul that deserves this kind of judgement, that somehow this sort of suffering was justified. "No," Valfardare thought. "She had done nothing to deserve this death, nothing to deserve this suffering, and she certainly had done nothing to deserve an eternity suffering in the same way." A slow trickle of tears began to flow down Valfardare's cheeks as he remembered his daughter.

Valfardare still had not spoken. The patriarch sipped on his tea, and in a compassionate tone, seeing the pilgrim's tears, sought to comfort him. "I understand that this must be an incredible moment of trial for you. But I think its important to not lose perspective. After an experience like yours, how much better will you be able to understand the teaching of the oracle and the true fate facing those who reject the Sovereign? I'd even venture to say that this has been a blessing. Having lived so close to hell and seeing what awaits an unforgiven soul, perhaps you may avoid an eternity of it?"

The patriarch's next words horrified Valfardare. 

“One day you’ll see that this was all for the best, friend. Through this pain you have arrived in the land of the Sovereign; it is His will. Why else should you have survived the plague to arrive here? The Sovereign has a plan for you, He chose to bring you here through the suffering of your country, and I believe that he wants you to embrace the forgiveness found through the death of the Arbiter. Then you’ll see that this suffering was really just the Sovereign's good in disguise."

Valfardare again had no words in response. It was incomprehensible to him that this suffering was a blessing, that it could be the work of justice, nor could he believe that this all was leading to some sort of special purpose for himself. True justice could never allow the death of one for another. How much more the death of so many for one? 

"But it is late," the patriarch continued.  "My wife has already prepared a room for you. It’s our joy to shelter you here among us, just as the Sovereign has been our true shelter from the storm of our wickedness. Tomorrow I'll take you to the oracle. He will want to speak with you.”

And with this the patriarch again prayed anew. “O, kind Sovereign, who even now is revealing his righteous retribution against those who despise His justice, leave us not to our own ends! May we live always in the light of Your justice and Your mercy. May we never stray from the grace and forgiveness found in Your Arbiter. I thank-You, kind Sovereign, for sending me such a powerful image of the end of wickedness that You have so graciously provided in the visit of this pilgrim. May You reveal the irresistible sweetness of Your grace through this horrible reminder of the wicked one’s fate. Amen.”

Valfarde asked to be shown to his room. 

The Historical Reliablity of the Gospels

This post is part of our De-conversion series. 

Should we trust the Apostle Paul? Most of us would not trust someone today who claimed to have direct revelation from God in visions, so why do so many Christians happily trust Paul when we don’t have any concrete knowledge of his prior reliability or character? We think people trust Paul because of false familiarity with his life. 

How much do you know for certain about the apostle Paul? Concerning his life we have some of his letters and we have some events from his life in the Acts of the Apostles. Was Paul a pharisee? He claims to have been, but how do we know? Really, we don’t know too much about his life for certain.

When discussing the historical reliability of the gospels the first consideration is the reliability of the authors. But we don’t know who wrote the gospels, and so we don’t know if the authors were themselves reliable. Even if we knew for certain that a man named Matthew actually did write Matthew, this would tell us nothing of his honesty and capability in reporting historical events. We have no external validation of the gospel’s authors distinctive claims concerning Jesus, we have no knowledge of their prior honesty or reliability, and we don’t know how capable they were in historical investigation. Also we know that they wanted people to believe in Jesus and so were biased in their accounts even if unintentionally. 

If we place these concerns to the side for a moment, when we compare the gospels we find inconsistencies that suggest we shouldn’t just trust everything they wrote. In particular the gospels have considerable disagreement on the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.

Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke report anything on Jesus’ birth. Because we agree with the majority of scholars that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source, the birth stories are interesting because they are a significant area of reporting where Matthew and Luke are left to their individual sources and investigation. 

Here is the order of events according to Matthew:

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King.
  • After his birth, wise men came from the east to see Jesus.
  • They went to Herod first and asked where is he born the king of the Jews? The priest and scribes answered Bethlehem citing Micah 5:2.
  • Herod asked the wise men to return when they found Jesus, but they don’t as they are warned in a dream.
  • Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to escape Herod.
  • Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem 2 years old or younger, according to the time the wise men gave.
  • Joseph returns from Egypt, but avoids Judea out of fear of Archelaus. They settle in Nazareth. 

And according to Luke:

  • Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth to go to Bethlehem for the census.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  • He is visited that night by Shepherds who had seen Angels.
  • Jesus was circumcised after 8 days.
  • They went up to Jerusalem to be presented at the time of their purification.
  • When they had completed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Nazareth.
  • They continued to return to Jerusalem every year for Passover.

Not only do Matthew and Luke narrate events of which the other was unaware, their two accounts don’t mesh together well. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem about 1-2 years after Jesus’ birth. But Luke is clear that they returned to Nazareth after the purification rites, so maybe 2-3 months later. If Luke is right then:

  • The wise men visited a Jesus who wasn’t there.
  • Joseph was not afraid of Jerusalem and Judea as they returned every year for passover.
  • Joseph and Mary did not flee to Egypt, as they returned home to Nazareth within a few months (…when they had completed all that was in the Law they returned..).

Although harmonization might seem possible after a cursory reading, we maintain that taking each author serious makes harmonization implausible. Possible does not mean probable. Luke and Matthew are both specific about their time lines, therefore without a prior commitment to the inerrancy of the bible there is no reason to think that they are able to be reconciled. The most natural reading of Luke 2:39-42 is that Jesus’ family returned to their home town where they maintained residence and that from Nazareth they went to Passover every year. A plain reading of Matthew has Jesus and his family living in Bethlehem 1-2 years after his birth and then the flight into Egypt. These accounts are not complementary, but contradictory. Thus, if we have attempted harmonization and found it both ad hoc and implausible we should think that one (or both) of the authors was wrong.

Matthew and Luke don’t fair much better with Jesus’ resurrection either. They are inconsistent on a number of details, but the most glaring problem is what Jesus’ disciples were commanded to do. In Matthew the angels at the tomb and Jesus himself commanded the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet with Jesus. Matthew continues his account with the disciples going to Galilee just as they were told. In Luke Jesus meets with the disciples on the evening of the same day he resurrected and tells them to stay in Jerusalem. These two commands are contradictory. The disciples could not both go to Galilee to meet with Jesus and stay in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit. The issue is not whether historically the disciples did go to Galilee before returning to Jerusalem, the issue is that they are given contradictory commands on the same day. 

Given that we don’t have good prior reasons to trust the authors of the gospels and that they have contradictory claims about events as important as Jesus’ birth and resurrection, we shouldn’t simply trust their accounts but read with a healthy skepticism.  

For ourselves, this means doubting that Jesus was born of a virgin and the accounts of his resurrection. We don’t have enough knowledge about the gospel authors to trust their accounts before we examine the texts, and the texts themselves are at times contradictory on important events that matter for the Christian faith. We find this to be particularly difficult because these questions are issues of life and death according to Christianity. Why would a good god have the message that saves from eternal damnation hang on such poor evidence? We simply can’t believe it. 

D & J

Galatians: Mystical Authority

On what basis would you trust an investor with your life savings?

At a minimum you would probably make sure that the investor's expertise is qualified.

Christianity calls us to make a decision with stakes higher than that of our life savings. It is a decision that lays before us an eternity of unending bliss, or one of exclusion from that bliss. On the negative side of this dichotomy, the best one can hope for is a kind of annihilation where existence simply ends.

So on what basis should we receive Christianity's message? On what basis do we buy in to its stakes? This issue of authority and credibility, of why one should believe the Christian message at all, is one of the core issues addressed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatian church.

Apparently, after initially receiving Paul's message, Paul received news that the church is now moving away from the message he had preached. So Paul writes to vindicate his own personal authority and the authority of his message.

He introduces himself thus:  "Paul an apostle not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, having raised him from the dead, and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia . . ." (Galatians 1:1-2 - unless otherwise indicated, the translation of Bible verses is my own).

Paul comes out swinging. He immediately makes it clear that he is an envoy, not of men, not through the agency or intermediacy of any man, but of God Himself. There is no other way to see this verse but as a claim to personal divine authority as a representative of God. Clearly here, in Paul's mind, to reject him and his message is essentially to refuse God Himself.

This is clear in verses 8 and 9 of chapter 1: "But even if we or an angel from heaven may preach a gospel to you contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As I have said before, now again I say: If anyone preaches you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed."

Let us not be confused about Paul's self-understanding. If anyone, including envoys from heaven, contradict Paul, they are by definition wrong and are to be damned. Refusing Paul's message is the same thing as to be damned. Paul asserts an authority that cannot entertain humility. There cannot be any thought of having erred in this claim - one cannot entertain the prospect of error while claiming the kind of divine authority so as to damn any naysayers.

But for the moment let us grant that Paul is not wrong to accord himself the kind of authority he claims. Perhaps his claim is good. So let us ask the question: How can we know that Paul's authority is divine and his message is divine such that all naysayers are damned?

"For neither did I receive the gospel from man nor was I taught, but through a revelation of Jesus Christ . . . But when God, the one setting me apart from the womb of my mother and calling through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, that I may preach him to the nations . . ." (Galatians 1:12, 15).

How do we know that Paul is Christ's envoy, that he carries with him God's own authority? Essentially, just because he says so. Paul's knowledge of Christ is not based on personal interaction with Jesus during his ministry. There is no evidence that the two knew each other while Christ walked the earth. We are commanded to believe Paul and his message, under penalty of damnation, because Paul had an undefined, unverifiable spiritual experience. Paul will later on assure the Galatians that his message was also approved by the apostles at Jerusalem, but this does not matter at all. If the apostles had disagreed with him, on the basis of his revelation, Paul would have said they were wrong, just as he said anyone preaching a different gospel is damned.

Would you trust an investor with your life savings because he had a revelation from God about the best possible investment, a revelation that is empirically unverifiable? Is Paul's claim to have had a spiritual revelation of Christ, something absolutely unverifiable and untestable, enough to legitimize a message that would condemn any and all skeptics? This is exactly what Christianity would have us do.

Consider another question: How much authority is too much power for any one person to morally enjoy? I don't know the personal psychology of the apostle Paul, nor do I claim to do so. What I do know is that the record of human history is incredibly poor when people are accorded too much authority. I really can't imagine a claim stronger than Paul's, tying people's eternal destiny to receiving or rejecting his words. Then again, this is a man who, if the Christian record is true, before his conversion was perfectly fine with taking the life of someone who believed different than him, and persecuting those who fell out of line. There is no physical violence attributed to Paul in the Christian tradition after his conversion, but imagine the violence reeking havoc on the psyche of those listening to the threat of death and condemnation for any and all who would stray from his narrow message. I am sure that Paul missed the irony of recalling his past persecution of the church while threatening all those who differed from his message.

This authoritative claim of Paul also serves to quell the use of reason. This is not to say that Paul is absolutely illogical. If God were to speak, as Paul claims for himself, then of course humanity would be obligated to submit themselves to His word. But while not illogical, this is not strictly speaking reasonable. Paul's claim to authority is a line drawn in the sand where it is no longer permitted to ask questions or to think; and where questions are off-limits, there too reason is left behind. In point of fact, this opening section of the letter renders the rest of his writing in Galatians superfluous. It does not matter what the law said given that God is speaking now through Paul, especially if the law is abrogated as Paul asserts. It does not matter that the law may be understood differently when read reasonably in historical context, because God is speaking now through the apostle. Much of the New Testament is indeed devoted to ripping the Old Testament from its grammatical-historical meaning in order to confirm this innovative apostolic message. Consider for example that in Matthew the "virgin" birth of Isaiah is re-interpreted to speak of Jesus, or that Jesus is now ultimately God's son called out of Egypt. The claims of Christianity, while not always illogical, are not exactly friendly to reason and its questions. We may not cross the authoritative line in the sand without also crossing over into damnation. Whether or not Paul's claim to revelation is epistemologically sufficient to justify his audience's belief simply doesn't matter. For Paul, God has spoken; and to refuse this message, even on reasonable grounds, is to rebel.

Imagine that today, while walking in the street, you happen upon a preacher. He claims to speak for God, to tie your eternal destiny to the reception of his message, and when you ask how you may know that this is in fact God speaking, he replies with a claim to having received some kind of spiritual experience. As a Christian, one has no legitimate ground to refuse this person's message having already accepted this basic premise by believing the gospel of the apostle Paul.

No reasonable person would entrust their life savings to an investor who invests on the basis of mystical revelation; neither should we entrust our eternal destinies and life's most important decisions to an authority that is based on the untestable and unverifiable claims of a spiritual mystic. 


Ecclesiastes: Perspective on Toil

“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:6 ESV)

Last week we looked at material possessions and concluded that we should enjoy what we have, but not horde stuff in a foolish attempt to secure lasting happiness. This week we talk about work. 

I'm lazy. At least, that is what I have been lead to believe since childhood. For many in our culture work is an unassailable good. Thus, we should work and work hard. Having a strong work ethic is important. We need to apply ourselves, etc. Sometimes this is tied to ideas of purpose or mission, with the idea being that if we are working in the right direction then we will find fulfillment and happiness. 

Thus the belief: work is important and should be seriously pursued. This has been beat into my since I was a kid. But why believe this? 

Qohelet sees clearly that work is not always what it is made out to be. Work can suck the life out of a person, leave them used up. Consider 2:22-23: 

“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (ESV)

For many people this accurately describes their days. Days full of sorrow that get brought home so that one can't even sleep well. Yet we don't have much choice for there are bills to pay. 

I will be the first to admit that I want to be able to pay my bills. This idea is expressed by Qohelet in 6:7-9:

“All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” (ESV)

According to Qohelet we work so that we can feed ourselves, essentially so we can pay our bills. Certainly there are other reasons for work that we will explore later, but this should be seen clearly. This helps us to gain perspective when we realize that all our appetites will not be satisfied. We think that if we can get something new, then the hunger will stop. And it does for a while. If we eat a steak we don't need to eat for a bit. If we get a new watch we don't look around for new watch immediately. But the hunger returns and we find ourselves longing for something else.  

"Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite" is another way of saying happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want. 

Work can suck us dry but we have to pay the bills. Qohelet's answer is to enjoy the toil. He says in 5:18-20: 

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” (ESV)

For Qohelet the main problem seems to be how work is approached. If our 'striving of heart' is towards satisfying our appetites then we are trying to fill a bucket that is riddled with holes. If we simply enjoy our toil, and what we already have, then we might find that life isn't so bad. The observation that we should embrace contentment in what we have and in our work doesn't seem to be revolutionary. Indeed there is nothing new under the sun. 

But we forget, we get caught up in the attempt to find permanent happiness in an impermanent world. Instead we should learn to enjoy want we have, what work we have. Of course we may need to change work, do something that we can enjoy if our work is insufferable. But we will not find lasting happiness 'out there' or 'someplace else'. At best there is simply a job we will be able to learn to enjoy. 

None of this implies that we shouldn't have dreams or work toward goals. But it does encourage us to enjoy that process with a clear understanding that finally achieving a goal doesn't mean that happiness will come strolling through the front door. 

Enjoy your toil today whatever it is, drink your wine and eat your food with a happy heart!





The Pilgrim part 2

The Sitting Room (part 1)

As the patriarch’s wife and the children began to clean the table, the patriarch gestured to Valfardare to come and join him in the sitting room. As Valfardare sat, the patriarch started the conversation. 

“We are an island people, pilgrim. I have never ventured over the sea beyond our borders, but everything I need to know about those places I have learned through the oracle. We know that there is no love for the Sovereign there, and that everyone scurries to take their fill of pleasure without limit, without boundary, without gratitude. I admit, I have no desire myself to go see those lands. I cannot imagine leaving this beloved kingdom. But there are those among us who are called on behalf of the Sovereign to go and represent him, taking light and hope to the darkness. I make sure to contribute in my own way, with supplies and encouragement; not an unimportant part of their mission. Yet, I am curious. Have you never heard of the blessed Sovereign? Have you never listened to the gracious words of our heralds in your land?" 

"To be honest, no --- not really. There were religious people in our country, and I was aware that there were preachers travelling through our area at times, but I was never really all that interested in hearing them."

"That is unfortunate." replied the patriarch. "As our oracle says, what hope can one have in life if one life is all one has? The Sovereign is the only escape from the vanity of life and chasing after vapid pleasure. Does your people believe in life beyond death?

"I would imagine that some do and that some don't."

"And what about you, pilgrim?" the patriarch asked. 

Valfardare wasn't really sure if he wanted to respond. He felt as if being led into a trap, or that something beyond genuine curiosity lay at the heart of the patriarch's motives. But he was a guest here, dependent on the mercy of this family. "I guess I don't really know," Valfardare ventured. "I don't know of any way of going beyond death to find out except by actually dying."

"Hmmm," began the patriarch seeming to be in deep reflection. "Our oracle told us a story once. There were two men, one a rich wicked man and the other his faithful, gentle servant. Everyday of his life, the wicked man used his power and influence to make the life of his servant miserable. As it happened, both men died on the very same day. Would you say that this story is one of justice or injustice?"

"Injustice," replied Valfardare. 

"And if this story ended here, it would indeed be one of injustice. When the oracles told it to us, he said that after death, the rich man spent all of eternity chained to a stone in a dry, desolate, wilderness, watching his former servant feasting and enjoying all the good things in life that he never had. True justice needs a life beyond this one." 

Curious, Valfardare inquired further, "But how do you know that a real justice exists in the way that you say it does, and how would one ever define it? I don't want to offend you, but an eternity that exists to prolong suffering seems to be a strange sort of justice; and an eternity of bliss designed to increase the pain of another is a bizarre kind of blessing."

"True friend," replied the patriarch. "The story was a just a story after all. We must not be too literal about that parable. But how indeed can one know true justice?  This seems like an impossible task --- to know the various causes and effects of actions, the motivations and the spontaneous workings of the soul, to match a fair punishment to an evil done. I would wager that this is impossible for a man. But in his grace, our Sovereign has not left us in the dark. Long ago, he gave us His commands, and though people reject them, these are the basis of real justice; a justice that will be accomplished beyond the boundaries of this life." 

"Well, I agree, if you had such a thing that would truly be something," answered Valfardare. "So how do you know that this justice has really come from the Sovereign, and what is it about the commands that make them just?"

At this, the patriarch seemed to become a little more animated. "The oracle tells that ultimately it is a matter of faith. Will you trust the Sovereign, the Creator, Provider and Sustainer of all the world, the avenger of all evils - or will you rely on your own wisdom and the wisdom of your peers? For myself, that is enough. If the Sovereign has spoken, I wil listen."

"But how do you know that what you have heard is actually the word of the Sovereign and that it is in fact just," insisted Valfardare. 

"As you have seen friend, I am a simple farmer. What you ask for is far beyond my ability to answer. I think your question could be better answered by the oracle."

As the patriarch finished speakng, his daughter gently made her way into the sitting room carrying a tray with three cups of tea. Setting down the tray, she took the first cup and emptied it into the box of soil, having been freshly cleaned after the meal. She then gave the other cups to Valfardare and the patriarch. Before drinking, the patriarch prayed.

“Blessed Sovereign, I thank You for this time of fellowship and rest. May our joy taken here together lead us to the love You as our only true rest, to delight in fellowship with You and Your beloved Arbiter. May our conversation continue to please You and may You bless us with insight and understanding. Amen.

Galatians: Authority and Morality

This will be the first in a series of posts examining the book of Galatians. 

I don't know as of yet if I am going to go through the text verse by verse, section by section, as I would have once done as an evangelical pastor, but I do want to look at major sections of this letter because its themes point to important and problematic issues within Christianity. 

I will begin by simply naming two - issues which will be developed through the course of the series. 

The first issue this epistle raises is the question of authority. Why should we believe Paul? Why should we trust his innovations on Judaism at all? On what basis can one properly stake his or her life on the message of the gospel? This issue of Paul's authority was evidently something the Galatian church struggled with, and it's one with which we should also struggle. It's important to see how Paul approaches the issue of authority to clarify how problematic it is for Christians. 

Another major issue that this letter raises is the moral impulse or power of the Christian. Paul spends a great deal of time arguing against Judaism and its law as a temporary, limited institution that must cede place to the justifying faith of Christ and the subsequent gift of the spirit, which is according to Paul, the Abrahamic promise. As presented, this aspect of Christian belief faces a significant conceptual problem. For Paul, the person of Christ and his blessing of the Spirit renders the law obsolete and unnecessary for the Christian, because the law cannot make us righteous. Further, the Spirit, given of the faith of Christ, empowers the Christian in a faith worked out through love, which is itself the entire fulfillment of the law. So why don't Christians seem to rise above the love shown by the best representatives of other faiths? How can the heroic figures of the Christian faith like Luther and Calvin be responsible for horrible events or ideologies (directly or indirectly) while being Christian, who must be by definition empowered by the Spirit?  Even Paul recognizes the empirical reality of the inner war between good and evil within each Christian, but how can one who has been invested with the promised Spirit go on to struggle and even at times to lose in his inner battle between good and evil? Paul's presentation of the Christian identity as one fundamentally changed by the gift of the Spirit as a new creation is problematic given the way that Christians continue to fail and struggle. 

I invite you to begin reading through the letter to the Galatians for yourself, and in doing so, to begin by asking yourself the following questions: Why should I trust that what Paul is writing to the Galatians is true? How could I even know that his gospel is true?


Ecclesiastes: Perspective on Wealth

This last week I've been wanting a new watch. Nothing super expensive, but I have my eye on a Citizen Eco-Drive with a perpetual calendar. Desiring things is a normal part of modern human life. Marketers are masters at getting us to spend money on things we don't really need. And given how our society is built around consumption, we don't really need much of a push to go out and get the latest and greatest. 

I believe we live in a strange relationship with things today. We know that money and stuff doesn't buy happiness, and yet surely paying the bills and having some amenities makes for a better life. We might not buy the latest 4K TV set, but we can't image living without a flat screen of some sort. Indeed, why shouldn't we enjoy at least some things?

We are told to prize experiences over possessions, yet sometimes the possessions are intimately tied to experiences. Buying a fifth guitar probably won't greatly change my life. Someone else buying a first guitar and learning to play is a different thing. The possession becomes part of the experience. If I had to choose I could easily give up all my guitars save one, the one I connect with the most and love to play. My experience of playing music  is tied to that guitar. 

What wisdom might Ecclesiastes give us on the topic of material possessions? 

A cursory reading of Ecclesiastes suggests a strongly negative perspective on things. Consider 2:1-11

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”  I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (ESV)

Qohelet kept nothing from himself that he desired and yet found it all to be vanity and striving after wind. He gathered and consumed and in the end found it to be emptiness. If we stopped here Qohelet would seem to be very negative towards things, and we might conclude that the best response to the materialism of our time is to reject it outright and live as monks. Indeed many today try to live minimalist lives. 

Qohelet's actual position on things is more complicated. In 2:20-21 He bemoans that a man might gather wealth and never enjoy it. This presupposes that one should enjoy wealth. In 9:7-10 He counsels enjoying one's food, wine, and wife, which are not exactly things but presuppose a house with the amenities to do so. A table and bed at least. White clothes and a way to keep one's clothes white. 

Qohelet's seems to counsel that we will find no lasting value in things, no permanent joy. Because this is the nature of reality, putting all our effort into gathering and consuming makes little sense. We will find ourselves unable to enjoy our great wealth or that we are leaving it to someone else. On the other hand enjoying what we have is not unwise, for what benefit is there in refusing to enjoy the food you have and in not taking care of your appearance? None at all. 

Wisdom as always is irreducible to simple black and white rules. 

So what about a potential watch? I need to realize that starting a watch collection and potentially getting some super expensive automatic chronographs will not bring me happiness. The toil I would put into gathering the wealth to get those pieces would not be worth it. On the other hand, having a handsome and reliable watch is not evil or emptiness. A modern man might not put oil on his face every morning, but he should take care of his appearance and for some of us that means putting on a good watch. Not essential to life, but also not emptiness. Not the experience of life itself, but something that stays with you for the ride.



The Question of Evolution

This is the second post in our De-conversion series. 

Evolution and historic Christianity are incompatible. By historic Christianity we mean the theology and faith expressed in the ecumenical councils of the Church. We especially have in mind the affirmations that Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants agree on. 

When we have insisted on this in conversation with people we often get push back. Many just assume that Christianity must be compatible with Evolution because one is science and the other religion. However, since historic Christianity and the theory of evolution make claims about the real world the possibility of conflict must be admitted. Two conflicting claims about the nature of reality cannot both be right. So why do we believe evolution and Christianity are incompatible? What two claims come into conflict? 

Historic Christianity claims a number of things about the world. These following items are common to all streams of Christianity. 

  1. Adam was the first human being, created by God in God's own image. 
  2. Adam brought sin and death into God's good creation. 
  3. Jesus was the perfect man, the son of Adam, and also son of God. 
  4. The reason that Jesus could die for all men is because of the continuity between Adam, the human race, and Jesus. This continuity exists because Adam was created by God in his image, and was the father of the human race who are also in God's image because they are related to Adam. To be human and in the image of God is to be related to Adam. Jesus being both fully God and fully man (yet without sin) can die for all men because he shares in man's nature. 

Although Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants have different understandings of how exactly this continuity works, this continuity between Adam, the human race, and Jesus is essential. The fathers of the church insisted that Christ only heals that which he assumes. The reason the doctrine of the incarnation is so important to Christians is because if Jesus wasn't fully man (son of Adam) then he could not have saved us. 

Evolution and advances in genetic science tell us that there never was an Adam. We did not come from a single man, but are instead a part of the messy process of the evolution of life on this planet. There is no shared image of God due to a common decent from a single, original man. 

This is a simple thing really, if evolution is correct and there was no Adam, then there isn't the sort of continuity that Christianity depends on in explaining the faith. Did Jesus have Neanderthal genes like some of us do? What about Denisovan genes?

This isn't a silly question, but instead gets at the heart of what it means to have a human nature according to Christian belief. According to historic Christianity all humans are made in God's image because we are related to Adam. Jesus' death on the cross means something because of our shared human nature with both Jesus and Adam. 

Many Christians today try to reinterpret the opening chapters of Genesis because this is a real problem. But a study of historical theology quickly establishes that a real continuity between Adam, the human race, and Jesus is foundational however the doctrine salvation is explained by the different streams of Christianity. 

Given that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, we no longer believe that the opening chapters of Genesis are historical or accurate. There was no Adam. We also therefore reject the Christian doctrine of humans being made in the image of God. We reject the doctrine of salvation in Christ because we reject that there is a continuity between Adam, the human race, and Jesus. 

D & J


Ecclesiastes: Textual Issues

Who wrote Ecclesiastes? When was Ecclesiastes written? Was there any influence from other ancient near east wisdom writings? Greek influence?

We don’t know who wrote Ecclesiastes. Although the author claims to be the son of David, King in Jerusalem, the majority of scholars think that the life of Solomon is used as a literary device. The author is called Qohelet, which means something like the gatherer or the preacher. Following Robert Alter in his The Wisdom Books: A Translation With Commentary, we will call the author Qohelet.

We don’t know when the book was written, but since the book uses a knowledge of Solomon we should date it after his reign. Otherwise we don’t have any solid data. As per the Wikipedia article and my commentaries it could be anywhere from 450 BCE to 180 BCE.

On the subject of influence, we don’t know anything for certain. The question of greek influence seems impossible to prove or disprove, with some scholars suggesting that perhaps the author wrote in the spirit of hellenism. The influence of other works of ANE wisdom literature seems more likely, but tracing anything concrete is difficult. Still, works such as The Man Who Was Tired Of His Life, The Song Of The Harper, Dialogue of Pessimism, and The Epic Of Gilgamesh have interesting parallels. I believe the safest thing to say is that the author of Ecclesiastes wrote in this tradition.

One of the biggest and most important questions regarding Ecclesiastes is whether the text is a unity. Is the entire text from beginning to end the work of a single person, or has there been an editing process that potentially added material? When we read the book of Ecclesiastes in its entirety  the ending seems out of place. Qohelet isn’t clear on a number of theological positions we would expect him to be. On issues such as wisdom and fearing God he is either ambivalent (in the words of Robert Alter) or intentionally subversive (my theory). But the ending seems to wrap things up neatly:

“Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:9–14 ESV)

This passage calls to mind other verses in Ecclesiastes such as 8:12-13: “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.” Also 5:1-7 which counsel fearing God by paying vows without delay and watching your words before him in worship. At the end of this deeply subversive text we are left with the encouragement to fear God and keep his commandments, which pushes us to believe that perhaps Qohelet was not as subversive as he seems. Perhaps he was simply encouraging us away from materialism and trusting ourselves.

But if you go back to the beginning and reread Ecclesiastes again, the text seems deeply subversive and the picture of God doesn’t seem to line up with the rest of the Bible. Seeking out wisdom is an evil business that God has given man (1:13). Being wise is really no benefit for time and chance happen to all (2:14). Where there is justice there is also wickedness, and God’s judgment of righteousness and wickedness is only to show us that we are no better than beasts (3:16-22). Even 5:1-7 seems to counsel not trust of God but literal fear, for he may destroy your work. Don’t poke the bear.

So what about that ending? According to Alter, and from what I have seen in reading around, the majority of scholars think the ending of Ecclesiastes is an addition. Somebody added a pious ending to bring the book more into line with the rest of the canon. If those verses are not considered a part of the book, then the book retains its subversive or ambivalent quality in full.

Can we prove whether 12:9-14 where added on to the book by a later scribe? No, we cannot. We know many of the books in the Bible have been edited and that scribal additions could and did happen. So it’s a matter of reading and seeing if it makes sense that this ending which reads against the rest of the book really was from the author’s hand.

All this to say that I will be interpreting the book from the perspective that 12:9-14 are not part of the book. Not only do the majority of scholars believe they are not part of the book, but I think these verses undermine the message of Ecclesiastes.

We will start on the message next week. I want to encourage you to read Ecclesiastes this week. I think the reason Ecclesiastes was kept in the canon is because of its deeply subversive and at times disturbing qualities. Ecclesiastes is not in the Bible because it somehow paradoxically encourages a whole hearted devotion to God, but because of how it questions everything. There are already books that encourage devotion to God, if that is all Ecclesiastes was meant to be I don’t think it would have been kept around. But this my judgment on the matter and you will have to make up your own mind.

Again, I encourage you to give Ecclesiastes a read through before we continue the series next week. We will start next week by considering the vanity of both material possessions and the way we acquire them.


The Pilgrim part 1

The Table

“Please pilgrim, take your ease around our table. The sea is hard, and I know that your home country is harder, more evil still than the untrustworthy sea. It is truly a wonder that you have come upon our shores. It is a joy for us to share with you from the good things that our Sovereign has given. Isn’t that right family?” 

“Oh yes, Papa!” his young daughter cheerfully sang in agreement. 

“Yes sir,” agreed his son, a boy visibly on the verge of manhood. 

“Indeed dear,” said his wife, with an infant daughter embraced lovingly in her arms. “It truly is our blessing to share with you the gracious provision of our blessed Sovereign.” 

Valfardare the pilgrim humbly followed the family to the table. The lone survivor of those with whom he had journeyed from his home across the sea, and still weak, he was grateful to have been found so quickly by a kind family. 

It was the patriarch’s wife who had first seen him sitting on the shore in the distance; and running to search her husband, told him about the stranger. When Valfardare saw the patriarch’s approach he could see by his stature and his walk that the man would be difficult to overcome if proved hostile. Yet this large, strong man had shown him grace. To be sure, in his present, weakened state on the shore, Valfardare seemed the farthest thing away from a threat, but this was not the reason for the patriarch's kindness. He had simply said that as a servant of the Sovereign, he must show hospitality to strangers, and invited Valfardare to his homestead for a meal. 

Having washed their hands, and after giving Valfardare a fresh set of his own clothes, the patriarch led the family to the table, with his place at its head. He gestured for them to hold hands together around the table before sitting down. Valfardare watched as they closed their eyes and the patriarch lifted his head. 

“Oh, merciful and gracious Sovereign, slow to anger and abounding in love, we are here together, thankful for Your provision. As You give life to our land, so also You give us life. As the land receives its life from You, so also we trust You for our life. The land’s sweetness is but Your goodness, and as we enjoy it, may we direct our joy to Your boundless goodness. You have blessed us this evening with a stranger. May we be pleasing to You as we welcome him into our house from the hardness of the sea, just as You have welcomed us into Your own domain. Amen.”

“Amen!” the family chimed together. 

The modest but ample provisions were brought out from where they were prepared and spread across the table. Before eating, a plate, filled with the choicest of food from the table, was emptied into a box filled with soil. Then a glass more elaborate and finely crafted than those set on the table was also filled and poured out over the soil in the box. 

Valfardare must have looked visibly curious about this, as the patriarch began to answer his unasked question. “It is as I prayed before, friend. Our Sovereign is the source of all our good. It is His goodness that treats us and provides for us far better than we deserve, so our enjoyment and pleasure at this table must lead us to an enjoyment of true goodness; His boundless goodness. This custom helps us remember that we are but worms eating the delicacies of a merciful master by grace, and so it helps us not to drink too deeply of temporary joy.”

“Forgive me for asking, but how exactly would you know if you had done this?” Valfardare asked. 

“In truth, one rarely ever knows when he has done so, and almost certainly not as he is doing so. My friend, the wickedness of the soul is both seditious and deceptive; we do not really know the depths of evil hiding in the dark recesses of our heart, attaching itself to temporary good and delight. It is only the goodness of the Sovereign that has drawn us out of our evil. This is why we also pray as we leave the table.” 

"And how does the Sovereign provide for you here? The people from my land work the ground themselves with their own hands and their own tools," inquired Valfardare.

"Indeed, as we do here. But tell me friend, where do men get there vigor? Whence comes the invisible nourishment that fills their lungs and strengthens their backs for the burden? Why are some men able to the task while others lack the strength, though not lacking the lungs and the arms? Our vigor, our life, our strength are all provisions of the Sovereign's mercy. We are but sailors in a boat who have hung high our sails waiting for the breath of the Sovereign to take us where He will by His power, adrift but for His mercy. True, we choose our work and our labour, but even this would be nothing if not for the assent and power of the Sovereign. Our oracle tells us that He provides us both the power to will and to work for His good pleasure." 

Valfardare nodded politely. He was a guest, and though he did not really understand, he did not want to offend his hosts. For the moment, he was completely dependent on their kindness. In any case, where else would Valfardare go? He was still too weak to undergo a long journey alone and had no real knowledge of this land within which he now found himself. For all he knew they could still be miles away from their closest neighbours. 

After they had eaten and drank their fill at the table, the patriarch motioned for everyone to stand and again to hold hands. The family closed their eyes and the patriarch lifted his head to pray. 

“Oh, blessed Sovereign, the wise, the just, the destroyer of all things wicked, vengeance belongs to You. We confess to You that at this table we have not delighted in You as we ought to have done, that we have not shared our joy in You as we ought to have done, that we have neglected our enjoyment of You as the deepest of all our goods. We appeal to the mercy of your Arbiter, sent to us of Your goodness, to forgive us our infinite wrong by which we have offended Your infinite glory in having drunk too deeply from temporary joy. Look upon us with Your grace, and let us leave this table alive by Your mercy.”

“Amen!” the family happily chimed. 

Valfardare was being to feel very odd about this devotion to the Sovereign.

The Resurrection and Warranted Belief

This is the first post in our De-conversion series.

Imagine that you have a friend named Jim who comes to you excited. He tells you that he has found out that the reason we die is because all humans have a deadly disease. He continues to say that he knows a way we can live forever. You ask him how. He encourages you to look at a letter from a friend of his named Luke from a distant country. You examine the letter and find a claim that there is a man named Josh from that country who 5 years ago died, but then came back to life.

You ask Jim how he knows this, if the letter writer had seen Josh come back to life, etc. In other words you ask for evidence establishing why the claims of the letter should be believed. Jim admits that Luke never saw Josh come back to life, but that Luke had spoken to people who knew Josh's closest disciples. These close disciples had seen Josh come back to life. Furthermore there are other letters from a man named Paul who saw a vision of Josh. 

Jim encourages you to pledge allegiance to Josh and follow his teachings in order to escape death. You ask if Josh's followers live forever. Jim admits that Josh's followers die, but insists that Josh is going to raise all his followers to live eternal one day. 

In this circumstance you have no reason to believe Jim. You would be entirely justified in thinking that Jim had been fooled. The fact that Jim insists that numerous people have believed in Josh is no argument at all, the evidence itself is severely lacking to establish anything, let alone that Josh has somehow beaten death. 

Yet this is exactly how the stories of Jesus' resurrection read; and even worse, these letters and stories were written about 2000 years ago by people who only claim to have talked to eyewitnesses or to have had visions. We have no evidence aside from the fact that many people believed that Jesus rose from the dead. 

There is no way to verify or establish that what the Gospels claim about Jesus coming back to life. This is in fact much like many other ancient documents, but the difference is that, on this meager evidence, Christianity demands that you devote your entire life to Jesus and the church. When placed alongside a contemporary example in which the evidence is of the same quality, we see how ridiculous this is. 

No matter how many arguments are put forward concerning the New Testament, a couple facts remain.

  1. The stories we have are from writers who heard these stories from other people. 
  2. We have no way to independently corroborate these stories.

Even if the texts of the Gospels were perfectly preserved as from the original author's hand this still doesn't mean you should believe their claims. The disciples told people who told others who told others who wrote it down. Perhaps, although we don't know for certain, the one of the disciples told the story of Jesus' resurrection to one of the Gospel authors. But then again we don't know for certain who wrote the Gospels. All of this to say the Gospels are at best second or third hand stories from people we cannot identify for certain. 

Believing a story of a friend of a friend who saw someone dunk a basketball from the foul line is one thing. We have proof that some athletes can in fact do this. Believing a story of a friend who read a letter from a man who claimed to have spoken with someone else who claimed that a man rose from the dead is quite another. Furthermore, supposedly this man rose from the dead to save you from a problem you cannot see or feel and which will only become plain after you die. 

Just as you would never believe Jim, you shouldn't believe the New Testament claims about Jesus. Used in the loosest sense of the term, anything is possible. But that doesn't mean you should believe.  

D & J

The house of crazy

Buzzfeed recently posted a longread article on Bethel church in Redding, California. 

There are so many things one could say about this. Sadly, having been a part of the Charismatic Movement for a time in my life, I've actually witnessed things like this. I remember walking into the bathroom on a friend counselling an obviously disturbed individual to throw away his medication and just trust God - I intervened as best I could but I actually don't know if the guy threw away his medicine or not. 

Here are some thoughts about this church:

1. It's hard to miss the extreme ego-centrism of the whole thing, where people are treated like objects given to God's special children, looked for on treasure hunts. But Christianity encourages this sort of selfish perspective when it teaches that the God of the universe is working out all things for his children's very good. 

2. Unsurprisingly, the stage is filled with beautiful people, easy on the eyes and easy on the ears. They are really striving here to pursue the example of the man of sorrows in whom there was no beauty that we should desire him. 

3. While the smallest mentally induced, physiological changes are checked off as miracles, people have actually died avoidable deaths as a result of this group's practice. This is unconscionable. 

4. Many evangelicals would disown the group (for good reason). The irony is that the apostle Paul's own practice and testimony is far closer to the practice of these visionary leaders than many Christians would like to admit. The apostle Paul's authority was grounded in his visions of Christ, and supposed revelations (conversations?) with him, whereas in many Christian churches, if someone came in having visions of Jesus and claiming special revelations, they would be dismissed in rather short order. 


Ecclesiastes: The most honest book in the Bible?

For a long time my favorite book in the Bible has been Ecclesasties. The tone of the book is bleak at times, even nihilistic. But I always found the book encouraging in an odd way, as if it helped to rid me of bad ideas of how life was supposed to work. I never got to preach on it when I was a pastor and a Christian. For my first series on the blog I am going to work through the book commentating on it from the perspective of a former believer and pastor. I will have the posts out weekly on Sunday morning, sort of like sermons. I expect it will lay out as such:

  1. Background of the book and integrity of the text
  2. The vanity of self-indulgence and money
  3. The vanity of work
  4. The vanity of religion
  5. Optimistic nihilism

As an teaser, consider this passage: 

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, ESV)

This passage is interesting because it undercuts the occasional insistence in the book of Ecclesiastes that God will judge wrong doing and reward the righteous. Just two verses earlier the author had wrote: "Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him." How is it going to be well with those who fear God when there are "righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked"? To me it seems that these ideas contradict one another. What sense does it make to call people the fear of the Lord when it might not make any difference? Furthermore, given that the author insists that all go down to Sheol, both the righteous and the wicked, what does it matter in the end? 

I think, but can in no way prove, that the reason Ecclesiastes reads how it does is that the author was trying to appease the religious establishment of his day. He includes the side comments about honoring God because of his culture and upbringing, but I don't think he really believes it. If he did, then his insistence on all being vanity and how the world is often unjust doesn't make sense. But if he was writing a deeply subversive book that questioned everything about religious life without an outright rejection, then Ecclesiastes to my eye fits the bill.

The other possibility is that the author was ambivalent and swung back and forth between the two poles of skepticism about common notions of God and wanting to believe in a God who would bring justice. This is Robert Alter's position. The reason I lean away from this is that I feel the contradictions of the text are better explained as intentionally attempts to not alienate his audience while still subverting their beliefs. But either are possible.  

I believe his position is that it is all vanity, and therefore you should just go enjoy yourself. God has given us some days which we cannot know for certain and neither can we know God's work in the world. So the author commends joy. 

Some might ask, what about the end of the book where the author says to fear God and keep his commands for this is the whole duty of man? I believe this was added to the text after the fact, to bring this book better into line with the rest of scripture. The author's nihilism and insistence on enjoying ourselves doesn't line up with fear God and keep his commandments. We will discuss this more next week in the post about the background of the book and the integrity of the text. 

For now reader I commend to you joy. On this Sunday eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart, enjoy sex with your partner. According to Ecclesiastes 9:7 God has already approved what you do! 



Baggage check

Tim Challies posted recently on when good things can become dangerous things, using an example from an airplane to illustrate a spiritual reality.

His main point can be seen in the following quote: 

A suitcase is a perfectly good thing that may just kill you in an emergency evacuation. It is a perfectly good thing, but it isn’t good enough to risk your life for. And our lives are full of good things that may just slow us down, that may just hinder us from matters that are far more important—matters of eternal consequence. If you’re on a plane that is broken and burning, the best thing you can do is lay aside every weight and every hindrance so you can focus on just getting to safety. This is what’s best for you and what’s best for the people around you. And in a world that is broken and burning, it is even more important to lay aside every possible hindrance, to do it for the good of your own soul and the good of those around you.

Perfectly good things, in different contexts, can become dangerous things. And I don't think Challies is wrong for making the connection he does to Christianity. 

Christianity asks that we abandon good things for what it holds to be the very best thing - faith and devotion to Christ unto eternal life. Our suitcases are not just things, they are our very selves, everything that we would normally use to define our lives. If we do not deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily, if we do not die to ourselves daily, we are substituting the good for the best. The dangerous good in Christianity can be family, friends, fulfillment in a career, financial security, a loving and meaningful marriage - because each and every one of those things can impede genuine faith and devotion to Christ. 

So on what basis do we have the right to abandon the good for what we are told is the best?  On what grounds do Christians believe that good things become dangerous things (which may indeed be true)? How do we know that the world is burning and broken and that the only thing that matters is avoiding an eternity in hell?

Faith and devotion to Christ above all, so as to avoid hell, is built upon the claims of a collection of writings, of which the most recent date to about 2000 years ago, centred upon a man that we know almost nothing about, who was said to have died as a necessary blood sacrifice to appease the just Creator of the world, and who was apparently resurrected a few days later as a supposed display to the whole world, but only seen by a few of his closest followers. 

I could receive a letter tomorrow from a trusted friend in a far-off land, who had since died after its sending, telling me that he had witnessed a man on two occasions flying through the air like a rocket perfectly unaided, leaving me with no conceivable way to verify his claim. And if I believed the Christian account of the resurrection, I would have no better grounds to disregard the claims of my friend's letter. 

Maybe the baggage we should be leaving behind as dangerous are the ridiculous claims of Christianity. 


Which Sexual Ethic?

Recently Carl Trueman wrote a post bemoaning what he considers the vacuum within which modern sexual ethics exists.

His last paragraph is his punchy moral lesson. It reads as follows:

The problem here is twofold. We live in a world where science is raising ethical questions faster than we are able to answer them. And, as far as sexual ethics goes, once sex is removed from its role as the seal of a lifelong monogamous commitment between a man and a woman, sexual ethics is doomed to descend into total chaos, built on the ever-shifting sands of cultural taste and selective and vague notions like ‘consent.’  The trap in which we now find ourselves was sprung long, long ago. And, as usual, the response is not to acknowledge that we have built our sexual ethic on nonsense but to try to make technology solve the problems which it has itself first created. 

Obviously Truemman believes that the only way our sexual ethics can avoid chaos is by recovering the traditional biblical view. 

In response to him, I'd pose two questions. 

1. Which biblical model of sexuality are we supposed to work with?

Trueman cherry-picks monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, but those are not the only perspectives on sexuality presented in the Bible. To mention a few:

  • What about the one found in the pre-fall environment of Eden, where presumably incest was the norm?
  • What about the that does little better than treat woman as property?
  • What about the one which subverts a woman so that she must call her husband lord?
  • What about the one which considers sexual physicality unclean so as to require separation from the community?
  • What about the one which commands divorce from foreign wives?
  • What about the one which considers murder better than sleeping with a foreigner?
  • What about the one that commands no divorce?
  • What about the one that commands no divorce except in cases of adultery?
  • What about the one that would advocate celibacy as the best way to live? 

2. How does biblical sexual ethics not itself avoid the charge of being based on nonsense? 

Christianity's grounding of its ethics on an ancient text does not make its footing solid; and positing revelation behind documents that affirm the idea of slavery and stoning for the disobedience to parents seems like attributing things dishonourable to 'God'. Even if we were to receive a 'golden tablet' of sexual ethics, should we not submit it to examination according to all our other sources of knowledge, and not simply receive it as a matter of blind faith? If we were to do so with the Bible, its overbearing patriarchy alone should be enough to give us cause for caution.

Obviously, a biblical sexual ethic lifted from the various options or complete and utter chaos are not the only two options available to us; and if the subject is difficult, maybe that is because reality resists our preferred categories.