John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Philosophy

Ontology Matters

Several years ago I was flying home from North Carolina after spending a weekend teaching at a church there. The man sitting next to me pulled out a philosophy test and began filling it out. I asked him if he was a student, and he said that he was actually a first-year professor of philosophy at a state university here in the southeastern portion of the United States. He asked what I do, and the conversation took a strange turn when I said, “I’m a theologian.”

He immediately told me that he had been a graduate assistant for Daniel Dennett, and he wondered if I’d had a chance to read Breaking the Spell (which had just come out not too long prior to this). I had not, so he told me the central theme of the book. I told him that I had read Sam Harris‘ book, The End of Faith. He asked me if I might be afraid to read Dennett’s book. I smiled and said, “Why would I be afraid?” He responded, “Well, it might cause you to question some things.”

I assured him that I questioned things all the time. That’s my job.

He didn’t quite know how to respond to that. “What do you mean?” he asked.

I told him, “I don’t only read 'Christian' books. I want to know the other points of view. I couldn’t speak to the issues intelligently otherwise — at least not with any credibility.”

Then I asked him, “Do you think Dr. Dennett read enough to interact responsibly with any Christian scholars? There actually are some, you know.”

I even listed some for him: Ravi Zacharias. Alister McGrath. N.T. Wright. Alvin Plantinga.

He’d never heard of any of them.

We continued our conversation for a while. He asked if I was a dualist. I told him that I was an ontological dualist. He seemed to know what that meant, but he looked a little uncertain so I explained. “I believe there are two categories of things: God and not-God.” Now he understood.

I pushed a little farther on some things that appear in the atheist’s worldview that would require greater faith than most Christians have. I asked him how we got from nothing to something. And how did we get from chaotic something to ordered something when that violates the law of entropy (that things move from order to chaos unless acted upon by an external force). And how do we even know that we know what we know.

He admitted that there were some considerable gaps in his belief system — especially epistemological gaps.

“Perhaps,” I said, “you’ve been prejudiced against the supernatural so much, so indoctrinated by Hume’s closed system that you’ve ruled out the existence of something transcendent. Maybe that transcendent thing is a person, and maybe that person could fill in those gaps if you’d let him.”

“You’re a preacher. How do you know Hume?” he wanted to know.

I went on to say, as gently as I could, that I am not a Christian because I have to be or because I’m afraid to not be. I am a Christian because it makes the most sense to me. If there is another belief system that is as comprehensive, practical and correspondent to the way things actually are in this world, I’d most likely jump ship. But I’ve read every belief system I can find, and, thus far, Christianity beats them all hands down.

He apologized and said he really had to get back to preparing his test. I told him I understood and actually had some work to catch up on myself. We flew the rest of the way home in silence.

When we got off the plane, he caught up to me at baggage claim and said the strangest thing. He said, “I’m embarrassed.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you know more about my field than I know about yours. And I’ve made fun of people like you. I wonder if my friends and colleagues would give your literature as fair a reading as you’ve given ours. And yet we call you the fundamentalist.”

I gave him my card and told him I’d love to meet him for lunch sometime. He never contacted me again.

I tell you that anecdote because I think there are a lot of people like him. He’s educated, but he’s been educated into a worldview — without even realizing what was taking place. He’s prejudiced against Christians, but the Christians he’s prejudiced against are more a figment of his imagination than the real Christians who live and work around him. If Christians can keep from panicking, listen and speak in a winsome manner, we can do more than any protest or saber-rattling ever could. Maybe that’s what Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 3:15-16.

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn't like me or why I can't stay out as late as I want. We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and -- sometimes -- more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn't actually stick to that principle; you can't -- it's impossible -- but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn't plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you've been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I'm honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I've missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you're interested in taking this journey with me.

Why Am I Here?

Most of us spend most of our time just trying to survive and advance through life. That mortgage doesn't pay itself, and my job demands a lot of time and energy. Plus, I have a family that requires attention. Someone has to drop off clothes at the dry cleaners and make sure the check book is balanced. The dog needs a walk, and at least one of my daughters has a recital of some sort every other week (or so it seems). There's just too much to do for me to spend a lot of time gazing at my own navel asking mysterious questions of the universe.

And yet....

Every once in a while, you pick your head up and start to wonder, "Is there a point to any of this? Am I going anywhere, or am I just stuck on some sort of cosmic treadmill?"

In those quiet moments you do ask those big questions. You may not expect an audible voice to reply, but you ask nonetheless.

Is there something more?

Why are we here?

More specifically, why am I here?

Spend much time asking those questions, and you may find yourself feeling all alone, isolated, peculiar. You may begin to wonder if anyone understands you at all. You may actually long for a life that looks different, but the idea of being different may make you feel lonely.

Welcome to existentialism.

These are problems that have been addressed by philosophers who, as the word suggests, have been concerned with the problems of human existence -- not the existence of objects or planets or animals, but the existence of humans -- specifically the existence of individual humans.

See, it's one thing to ask why there is anything and why there are people in general. It's quite another thing to ask about why, of all the people who could have existed, I exist.

And, lest you think this is just one of those questions that can only be answered by people who do yoga and eat lots of fiber and live in caves somewhere, the truth of the matter is this: you have beliefs about this. You may not be able to articulate them, but they're in there.

And those beliefs inform the decisions you make, leading to the life you live.

So, if you want to change your life, you can't just go back to the decisions you've made, undecide and redecide. You have to go all the way back to what you believe. Examine whether or not your belief matches up with the truth (which is best defined as "Reality from God's perspective). Then make sure the decisions you make reflect that belief.

Who wants to go first? Why am I here? Why are you here? Anybody?

Conflicted Applause (Re-Post)

It's hard to believe I wrote this four years ago. So much has changed since then, and yet so little is substantially different. I thought it might be appropriate to re-post this as I sit and stare out at a rainy Veteran's Day. --------------------

Today I flew home from Denver and had a strange experience in the Atlanta Airport. A group of military personnel were flying out — maybe 40 of them. As they walked through the airport in a group, people started spontaneously applauding. I saw young men slowly turn red and break out grinning in spite of themselves. I saw young women staring intently straight ahead lest they turn to look and catch someone’s eye. They looked sheepish and humble. There was no strut in them, but there was the unmistakable tinge of youthful embarrassment.

I normally walk through the airport quickly and with my head down, but I stopped and watched and clapped my hands along with everyone else.

Well, almost everyone else.

There was a family who did not applaud. They had dark skin. They looked Middle Eastern. The children started to applaud, but the adults quickly stopped them. The adults didn’t look angry or frightened; they looked sad.

I stood there for a moment and thought about what was going on. And I found myself conflicted.

There was a part of me that wanted to clap and shout and go pat those young men and women on the back and say how proud we are of them, and how we’re all praying for them. There was another part of me that wanted to yell, “Don’t go! Stay here with your moms and dads and husbands and wives and kids!”

Of course, I respect these young people and their willingness to put their lives in harm’s way to protect innocence and spread freedom and democracy around the world. I believe we are a safer nation because of our military, and I want to honor that — especially the weekend of Veteran’s Day.

But there’s so much about the whole “military mindset” that I don’t like. I realize I am woefully unqualified to speak on this, and I want to learn to speak more intelligently about this subject. As a starting point, I want it to be known that I have tremendous respect for the military and want to show proper respect, but I also have some major qualms about exactly what it is we’re supporting.

I don’t like the fact that we take young people and program them to stop thinking individually — breaking them down and re-training them to practice group-think. At its worst — in scandals like Tailhook or Abu Ghraib — it takes on a distressing kind of mob-mentality that leads to grotesque violations of human rights. I sometimes wonder if boot camp itself isn’t a violation of human rights.

And I don’t like the fact that these young people are trained to kill. To some extent, they are taught to stop considering the value and dignity of human life and see only targets. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that’s stuck in my head. It’s simplistic and reductionist, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It said something like: “Maybe when Jesus said we should love our enemies he meant we shouldn’t kill them.”

I understand the biblical arguments for the Just War theory. I’ve always considered myself a Just War advocate — in a true Augustinian sense.

I also understand the biblical arguments for Pacifism. I was raised in a church that had strong roots in the pacifist movement. From earliest childhood I was taught how to explain the phrase “conscientious objector”.

I understand the arguments for Pre-emtive War — though I must admit I find very little that is biblical about them.

I don’t mean to start a new thread here to unpack all of this. But I wanted to share with you my feelings that afternoon as I watched those young men and women — so full of youth, so full of promise, so full of hopes and fears and anxiety. I don’t know if they’ll come home or not. I don’t know if they’ll kill anyone or not. I don’t know if their mission will be successful or not. I’m not even sure if this whole thing is necessary or not.

I’m sure there are folks who have thought through those questions. I remain unconvinced of a lot of the answers I hear coming from various sources, so I’ll continue to search out the wisdom of God on this matter.

Until I figure it out, though, that’ll be me in the corner listening to the sound of my own conflicted applause.

Free to Choose

Sadly, I fear this post may offend some of my readers. The words "free will" have become dirty words to many of my Calvinist friends. Historically, no one questioned a human's ability to make real and consequential choices until Augustine developed a deterministic concept of God late in his life (c. 417-430). Church fathers Tertullian, Novatian of Rome, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa may not have agreed on everything, but they were unanimous in their support of our ability and responsibility to choose wisely when it comes to accepting God's offer of forgiveness and mercy. In fact, the last three made tremendous arguments that this was an indispensable part of what it means to have been created "in the image of God". So, it is with some trepidation but no apologies that I move forward from yesterday's post on God's holiness to discuss the dilemma presented to humans. As I said yesterday, God is holy, and we're not. God's holiness prevents him from having a relationship with anything not perfectly holy (that would be each one of us and all of us collectively). This, in turn, hinders the flow of generosity and kindness he wants to bestow upon us and threatens to subject us to his eventual wrath.

If that's the case, why didn't God remove the potential for sin in the original design of the first humans? Why not just take sin out of the mix from the start so there wouldn't be anything to worry about?

Well, he could have done that. One of the advantages to being the Creator is that you get to choose what features end up in the final product. He could have created us so that we all break out into the theme song from "Gilligan's Island" every hour on the hour if he'd wanted to. He didn't, and thank him he didn't!

He could have programmed us so that we had no choice but to do whatever he said without thinking, but he didn't. God's a person (I got in trouble for saying that once in a church in northern California, but it's true), and -- as a person -- he wants to be in a personal relationship with the persons he personally creates. A personal relationship is not possible without options, without choice, without risking rejection.

The negative side to free will is obvious: Being free to choose embracing God and obeying him means also being free to choose to ignore God and disobey him. God is holy. We are not. And as much as we may want to point the finger at someone else -- our parents, our teachers, Adam and Eve -- we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But there's an upside to free will, too. Isn't there? What are the positives you can think of?

Closer to Comfort; Farther from God

In my last post I mentioned that I'm reading this book by Dale Allison called The Luminous Dusk. In it, the author notes that prior to the 17th Century, with the exception of a very few Romans and Greeks, it was hard to find any European who seriously doubted the existence of God. Furthermore, prior to the Lisbon earthquake of 1700, most devastating "acts of God" caused people to think about themselves and the role they may have played in bringing the destruction upon themselves. But, in that pivotal moment, Voltaire turned the tables on God -- putting the Creator in the dock, as it were -- and demanded he answer for his actions. When it was determined that his answers were not good enough, modern philosophy simply wished the Creator away to the cornfield.

Now, when we ask why there are so many agnostics and atheists in contemporary society -- especially when there were so few throughout the majority of human history -- what are we told?

Hume's declaration that the universe is a closed system will be brought up. We're told that higher biblical criticism in 19th Century Germany poked holes in the theory of biblical infallibility. We're told that Darwin revealed the Book of Genesis as primitive mythology, something only believed by superstitious people who have no appreciation of science. We may even be told that religion was helpful for a time but has been rendered obsolete as we've continued to evolve.

But Allison suggests a factor so obvious we may end up overlooking it completely, a factor far removed from universities and books and debates, a factor that seems benign...until you think about it more carefully. Here's what Allison says, "Secularization correlates directly with a growing physical separation from the so-called natural world. In other words, the more we have moved indoors, the less some of us are inclined to believe" (p. 7).

Could it be something as simple as that? Could insulation and central heating/air conditioning, grocery stores and automobiles, overhead lights and electrical outlets be adding to our disbelief in God?

It does seem to me -- and this is purely anecdotal -- that people who work with their hands outdoors, folks who farm and hunt and fish, who know the feel of the soil and the smell of the rain have a greater sense of their dependence, their limits and the presence of something bigger than this world. People who are asleep when the sun comes up and indoors when the sun goes down, who never really get to see the stars or dig in the dirt find it easier to believe in their own self-sufficiency.

So, what do you think? Does comfort take us farther from God?

Theocentric Thinking (Part 3): Good, Wise AND Humble

I love the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar, and I hate it, too. I love it because it has all the elements of a great story. A king, strutting around like a peacock, claiming all the power and all the glory is his alone, defying God to show himself, thumbing his nose at the heavens, goes mad and lives like the wild animal he's become until he acknowledges and submits to the rule of God. Only then is he restored to his senses and his place in the palace.

The moral of the story is clear: "[God] is able to humble those who walk in pride" (Daniel 4:37).

That moral, as clear as it is, is why I hate this story. It's too much about me. Too often I find myself playing the role of the peacock who turns into a wild animal. It's humiliating. But it's true.

Pride leads to madness; humility is sanity.

One time Jesus told a group of grownups that they had to become like children if they wanted what he was offering. He told them that greatness, as far as he was concerned, was measured in service. Note that he did not say service is the means of achieving greatness. He said service is greatness.

I sometimes fear we're too familiar with sayings like these. They may have lost their ability to impact our ears. They don't shock or stun us the way they should.

Of course, Jesus not only taught such things; he lived this way, emptying himself, humbling himself to the point of death -- even death on a cross. Later, the Apostle Paul would say that those who claim to follow Jesus must have that same attitude, that same willingness to serve others to the point of death if necessary.

That chafes a bit.

Western society does not like this idea. We've been suckered in by Nietzsche. We're all or trying to become Superman. Meanwhile, Jesus stands, all too often, as the lone voice in the wilderness calling us to become like a child.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: the only category of people who are eligible for grace (according to the Bible) are the humble. This gets repeated so often in the pages of Scripture, it's nearly impossible to miss. Still, I'm lousy at it.

I read a book about humility not too long ago, and I hated it. Part of the reason why I hated it was because I think the author (whose name I will not mention) and his ministry (which I also will not name) are borderline abusive and manipulative in their fixation on human depravity and sin.

But part of the reason I hated it was because it got under my skin. I get irritated when someone brings up my shortcomings. It bothers me to think of myself as less than adequate.

The only remedy I can think of (and here is where I depart from the book and the author and his ministry) is to not think even less of myself than I already do but to think of myself less than I usually do -- to focus not on me, my sin, my smarts, myself and focus more on God and the gifts he gives and the gift he is.

This is the joyful byproduct of theocentric thinking: I learn to love myself correctly as I learn to love God completely.

Theocentric Thinking (Part 2): Good and Wise

In our attempt to think Christianly, I've suggested that there is no real "good" without God. Today I will add that there is little actual wisdom to be found without God. So, if our desire is to be "good" and "wise", I believe we'll find these things as we seek after God himself. Wisdom and goodness, in other words, come as a by-product of godliness. There are five books in the Old Testament that are known as the Books of Wisdom (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon). All focus, to varying degrees, on what it means to be human and how we all encounter evil, suffering, injustice and love.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is known for its pessimistic refrain, "Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless" (or "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity"). The point the author makes is that, for a life bound by time and space ("under the sun"), restricted to a brief lifespan, overshadowed by pain and injustice, leading inevitably to death, with no external reference point -- life, indeed, is as pointless and profitless as "chasing after the wind".

Only God -- Creator, Judge, Beginning, End -- can, by adding the missing elements of transcendence and eternity to our lives, give us meaning. Thus, in the alchemy of God's kingdom, the apparent folly of pursuing and serving an unseen God, of living a cruciform life of self-sacrifice and service, is transformed into wisdom.

In contrast to the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, we discover another maxim often repeated in the Wisdom Literature: "The fear of the Lord -- that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding" (Job 28:28; cf. Psalm 110:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Ecclesiastes 12:13). Here we find the two most important realities in all of human life: God and evil. God personifies all that is good (love, creativity, truth, beauty, etc.); evil is the absence of all those things and the presence of their opposite (fear, monotony, deception, destruction, etc.). These two categories dominate life on earth. One brings fulfillment; the other brings alienation. One gives hope; the other gives despair.

Wisdom, then, is a right attitude towards both. Wisdom is loving and embracing God (and, thus, that which is good) while also rejecting and hating that which is evil.

Viewed this way, the commands of God (especially those great commands to love God completely, love self correctly and love others compassionately) don't appear burdensome and dreary. They appear now as the only lifestyle that really makes sense, the sanest way to live.

That's what theocentric thinking will get you!

Theocentric Thinking

A couple of weeks ago, I walked through what I called a "Fourfold Framework". We talked about Creation, the Fall, Redemption and Consummation, and we saw that what the Bible has to say about these four distinct eras of human history allows us to view history in its proper perspective, as the unfolding process of God working out his purpose. I also suggested that seeing these four major events clearly, teaches us important truths about God, human beings and society. I want to begin today to expand upon that last sentence. These four great events, teach us important truths about God, about human beings and about society. So, let's start with the most obvious: God.

The Fourfold Framework (which -- if I didn't confess this earlier -- is a phrase borrowed from John Stott) is rooted in theocentric thinking. In fact, it amounts to viewing history from God's perspective. It is God who creates. It is God who judges. It is God who redeems. It is God who completes. All of this comes via God's initiative.

Theocentric thinking, then, has some consequences. For example, the concept of blind evolutionary development is completely incompatible with our framework. The idea that life is random or absurd or meaningless cannot be reconciled with our position. The primary assertion of most of what passes for "self-help", that I can and must pick myself up by my own bootstraps, appears not only foolish but downright mean-spirited.

These ideas are "secular" in the truest sense because as they leave no room for God, God's intention, God's design and God's provision.

It is my belief that human beings can only truly be defined in their relation to God, that without God we cease to be truly human. Being creatures, part of the created order, we are dependent upon our Creator. Being sinners, our sin is accountable to him and comes under his judgment. Being fallen, we do not merely need a helper, a coach or a cheerleader; we need a Redeemer. Being imperfect, we await and cooperate with God as he completes his process of reforming us and our world.

Theocentric thinking means we understand the term "goodness" above all in terms of "godliness".

I suppose this is at the root of my problem with so many Christians speakers' and writers' attempts to help people live better lives without ever introducing them to Jesus. it seems like, in the words of my good friend Tony Myles, we're "putting the cart before the horse". It feels like we're trying to help them be "good" without God, and I have a hard time defining the first word without the presence of the second.

Fourfold Framework, Part 2: Fall

The man and woman had it made, but they listened to a lie instead of God's truth. The consequence of their rebellion? They were run out of the garden. That might not sound like such a big deal, but there has been no greater single tragedy in human history. They had been made like God by God for God. Now they must live without God. All the alienation, all the disorientation, all the lack of purpose and meaning, all the existential angst we have ever suffered comes as a direct result of this momentous event.

As if this weren't bad enough, they also had to deal with the first relational crisis between the two of them. When God questioned Adam, he threw Eve under the bus, suggesting she was the true culprit. The equitable balance they'd experienced in the garden was disrupted. The battle of the sexes had begun. Tension hovers over our every relationship now. Pain haunts the threshold of motherhood (I stole that sentence from John Stott b/c it's soooo descriptive).

Sadly, their first apple does not fall far from the tree. Cain learns jealousy from someone, and expands it into hatred and, eventually, murder. Cain's son, Lamech, expands jealousy, hatred and murder into vengeance.

Even nature is out of whack. I don't know what "whack" is exactly, but nature is out of it. The ground was cursed, and cultivation -- which before was nearly effortless -- became a constant struggle. Creative work became a source of frustration. Failing to keep the very first commandment (stewardship of the environment), we've chopped down forests and polluted rivers, creating dustbowls and deserts.

The concept of "Original Sin" simply means that human nature itself is now twisted. Selfishness is deeply embedded within each of us. The godlikeness hasn't been destroyed, but it's pretty seriously distorted now. We're broken, and we can't fix ourselves.

These first two pieces of the frame (Creation and Fall) come together to make something unique among world religions. Most religions paint a picture of humanity that is either one or the other -- either all good or all bad. But Christians believe that human beings have an inherent dignity and an inherited depravity. That's the tension in which we live. I strikes me as a much more realistic portrayal of people.

Fourfold Framework Part One: Creation

One of the things that makes the Christian worldview exceptional is the way it sets human history into four distinct eras -- marked not by the rise and fall of empires or civilizations, but by the most major events imaginable: (1) the creation; (2) the fall; (3) the redemption; (4) the consummation. This framework allows us to view history in its proper perspective, as the unfolding process of God working out his purpose. As we see these four major events clearly, we find they teach us important truths about God, human beings and society. Today, let's start with the Christian understanding of Creation. It's fundamentally important for Christians that in the beginning, God created the universe out of nothing. Within that universe, he placed our galaxy, and, within that galaxy, he placed our planet. On that planet, he placed a garden, and, within that garden, he placed a man and a woman -- both created in his image. The importance of this "godlikeness" emerges as the story unfolds.

Adam and Eve are rational and moral, able to understand and respond to God's commands. They are responsible, exercising dominion over nature. They are social beings, with a capacity to love and be loved by one another. They are spiritual, finding their highest fulfillment in knowing their Creator. In fact, the story has them walking and talking with God in the garden on a regular basis.

What do you think the doctrine of Creation teaches us about God? What does it teach us about human beings? What does it teach us about society?


It's interesting to me that in writing about the tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller, I seemed to have a touched a nerve among people with whom I share common views on the subject of abortion. I've been asked privately if I'm attempting to justify Dr. Tiller's ethics. I've been told publicly that I don't have my facts straight on the reasons women seek late-term abortions. All I was trying to do was point out the seemingly cavalier attitude many people in the pro-life camp had towards the murder of a man in a place of worship and how incongruous that attitude is to our stated position on the sanctity of life.

I actually think the pre-occupation with statistical analysis and the fierce determination not to appear sympathetic towards Dr. Tiller because of his chosen occupation might prove my point: the Christian community is not always as pro-life as we like to say we are.

One person emailed me privately to tell of her conflicted feelings on the matter. She wrote, "I really do believe murder is wrong, but when you murder a helpless baby that could live outside the mother's womb, that is murder too.... Did he [the gunman] come to the defense of those who have no say? The Germans had laws that made it legal to kill the Jews. The United States blind justice laws on killing babies is wrong too. Some one who realizes the laws aren't working and steps up is called a hero sometimes. Of course, I am not for killing doctors. I am just wondering if, considering all the babies he has killed, he could be called a mass murderer. I just don't know what to think."

The argument she mentions here is a common one and dates back to the early 80s when Francis Schaeffer wrote his book A Christian Manifesto. He compared America and its legalized abortion to Hitler's Germany and said that whatever tactics would have been morally justified in removing Hitler might also be justified in trying to stop abortion.

I believe he would be shocked to think that someone might actually take him at his word, walk into a place of worship and pull a trigger.

I've read a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his decision to participate in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He'd been an avowed pacifist, and yet, while he believed killing Hitler would be wrong, he also believed allowing Hitler to continue his rampage would be wronger still. One of the things I admire most about Bonhoeffer is that he did not attempt to justify his actions. He knew it was wrong. He would answer for what he did, and he knew the only remedy for his guilt would be the grace of God.

Killing Jews is wrong. Killing Hitler? Along with Bonhoeffer, I try to imagine what Jesus might do when faced with such a difficult choice and come away with the same conclusion: Jesus would not kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was content to add, "I am not Jesus." Though Hitler was an evil man, I'm not sure I could have pulled the trigger. I'm not sure if my reasoning would be conscience or cowardice -- probably some combination of the two.

Killing babies is wrong. Killing Dr. Tiller? I suppose "WWJD?" is still a good model to examine. Or perhaps we could refine it slightly for the sake of our conversation here.

WWJK: Who Would Jesus Kill?

Pro-Life in Church

March 8 was a pretty typical Sunday morning for most people. Those who are prone to church attendance attended the church of their choice. Others slept in, did the New York Times crossword puzzle, went to brunch, watched the Sunday shows or did whatever they normally do. Children went to Sunday school. Senior adults sang in the choir. Pretty normal stuff. Except in Maryville, Illinois.

A quiet, little town a few miles from the Missouri border, the residents there are accustomed to hearing horrific stories on the evening news. St. Louis is no stranger to violence. But that kind of stuff happens in big cities, not in the little hamlet they call home.

On Sunday, March 8, a mentally ill man named Terry Joe Sedlaceck walked into the 8:15am service at First Baptist Church and shot Rev. Fred Winters to death as he was preaching.

The Christian community was understandably heartbroken by the tragic events. Commentators and bloggers decried the act as an insult of the highest order. The very idea of bringing firearms into a place of worship was appalling. Churches across the country began considering security measures. A church building is supposed to be a safe place, a welcoming place, a sanctuary. Safe haven is offered to all who will come. This is not supposed to be a place where you must fear for your safety.

Yesterday was another typical Sunday. Some folks went to church. Some folks stayed home. One man, allegedly, drove nearly 200 miles to walk into Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, and gun down one of the ushers there.

Dr. George Tiller oversaw one of three clinics in America that will provide an abortion after the fetus is 21 weeks old (beyond what is now considered the threshold of viability -- which means that the baby could most certainly survive on its own). Dr. Tiller believed he was simply providing women with high-quality health care. He believed that abortions, if they are going to be legal, should be safe. Peter Brownlie, president of the Kansas City regional Planned Parenthood office maintained that Dr. Tiller's patients were "almost always in circumstances where something had gone horribly wrong with a pregnancy," and where a woman's health would be jeopardized by continuing the pregnancy.

For the record, I don't believe abortion should be legal. I believe the best medical and scientific evidence leads us to the conclusion that abortion is wrong, and it ought not be allowed among civilized people. And I know I'm not alone in this belief. I know lots of the people who read this blog agree with me.

But how pro-life are we really? Why aren't we as outraged by yesterday as we were by the events of March 8? I saw one mention of yesterday's shooting in a friend's Facebook status, and it, sadly, sounded like my friend was sort of saying, "Good riddance".

If we're going to be pro-life, where's the line? Is shooting a preacher worse than shooting an abortionist? Is it worse when a life is extinguished in a church rather than in a clinic?

The Christian Mind

In 1963, Harry Blamires popularized this phrase, "The Christian Mind", in a book of the same title. He wasn't talking about "The Churchy Mind" -- where one simply thought about how the events of the world would impact the church; nor was he talking about "The Compartmentalized Mind" -- where one schizophrenically jumped in and out of a Christian framework when the topic shifted from the Bible to the morning headlines. He wanted a mind that could think about everything "Christianly" -- a mind that could interpret everything from movies and music to politics and business from a Christian perspective. Blamires wrote that it would have "a framework of reference which is constructed of Christian presuppositions."

What do you suppose would be the "marks" or anchor points of such a mind? What would be those "Christian presuppositions"?

Mental Maps

Psychologists often refer to the core convictions we talked about the other day as part of your "mental map". We all have these mental maps; they're the way see reality and, consequently, interact with the world around us. More importantly, they're the way we interact with the world around us when we don't really have time to think carefully about it. For example, my belief in gravity is just part of my mental map. I never have to wake up and say, "Now, how would I live today if I really believed in the laws of gravity?" But if you watch the way I live, you'd be able to tell that gravity is a core conviction of mine.

When people followed Jesus around, it became obvious to them that his belief that if you sought the Kingdom of God and the righteousness of God above everything else, all the other stuff would take care of itself. He believed that so deeply, you could say it was as much a part of his mental map as gravity is a part of mine.

I want my mental map to look more like Jesus'. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said it was possible for us to take on "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16b; cf. Philippians 2:5-11). But how does my mental map get redrawn?

Look at how I worded that last question, please. Notice I did not ask, "How do I redraw my mental map?" The truth is: I cannot draw my own mental map. This is what we were talking about last week when I said that I cannot choose my own beliefs. But, as I suggested then, I am not helpless in this, either. I may not be able to redraw my own mental map, but I can submit to a process by which I find it redrawn.

Here's what I mean: Jesus told his earliest followers that it was better to give than to receive. That must have seemed very counter-intuitive to them. It didn't fit into their mental maps. But they saw his life and wanted his freedom, so they mustered up enough courage to actually try doing what he said. And they found out an amazing this: Jesus' prescription for life actually worked!

They did something they hadn't done before and experienced their desired outcome. And their mental map was redrawn a little.

My friend Andy Stanley often says, "When your faith intersects with God's faithfulness, great...things...can...happen."

When your faith prompts you to obey one of God's teachings, you'll find that he is trustworthy. And your mental map will look a little more like Jesus'.

Now, let's think practically about this for a moment. If this is the case, then what are the possible implications for you as an individual? For churches? For parents?

A Disconcerting Disconnect

The comments from yesterday's post were...interesting. Thanks to everyone who played along. At several points, it became obvious that this conversation is made all the more difficult by the presuppositions we bring to it. First and foremost, there was the presupposition that we're talking about "getting into heaven" or "being saved". Now, how those two phrases became synonymous, I'll never know. I did not intend for that to be the topic of conversation. I intended to address the question: Why are so many Christians jerks? Why do so many people who claim to follow Jesus look so little like him?

But the conversation kept going towards whether or not we're being judgmental if we say jerks can't get into heaven when they die. And this poses a problem for me, because -- if you read through the Gospels -- you'll never once find Jesus saying, "Here are the minimum entry requirements for you to get into heaven." You'll hear that kind of talk in a lot of churches (probably phrased differently), but you won't hear it from Jesus.

This is, in my opinion, part of the problem we have to address. I think we're so focused on getting people to trust Jesus with their eternal destiny that we lose the essence of Christianity sometimes. The true essence of Christianity has never been to focus on the afterlife to the exclusion of the present life. Rather, it has always been to live in the present in light of the eternal, to bring some of the eternal, in fact, into the present.

"On earth as it is in heaven," was Jesus' prayer.

Perhaps the elephant in the room when it comes to so many Christians demonstrating jerk-ish behavior is the fact that churches spend too much time worrying about who's "in" and who's "out" when it comes to "getting folks saved" and not enough time helping people understand the real plan of God, which has always involved the establishment of a community of people who are rightly related to him and rightly relating to one another, working together for the good of the whole world.

The earliest followers of Jesus watched the way he lived and said, "I'd like to live like that."

So, they started doing the things he told them to do. When they were offended, they forgave. When they had more than enough, they shared. When they were in positions of authority, they used that authority to help others. And they found out that his way of life actually worked. It provided them with peace in the midst of persecution, joy in the midst of sorrow, security when all the world was coming apart. It was the best recipe for healthy relationships and true satisfaction. They signed up to go anywhere he wanted them to go and do anything he wanted them to do, and they did this willingly, joyfully, gratefully.

And -- this is the important part -- they did all of this before they realized that Jesus was also concerned with their eternal destiny. They trusted Jesus with their present life, and it was because he proved trustworthy that they eventually came to trust him with their future life.

Having spent the better part of a decade studying the intersection of philosophy, theology and psychology, I'm ready to go on record with the following statement: It is psychologically impossible to separate faith in Jesus' ability to take care of us after we die from faith in Jesus' ability to be right about the best way to live between now and then.

The fact that we seem to have disconnected the two is troublesome to me.


Earlier this week, I talked about the fundamental difference between conviction and commitment. I said, "Conviction is something I think and feel to be true. It’s largely a matter of intellect and emotion.... Commitment is an act of the will. Commitment is a matter of choice." And then I asked whether you thought faith is more a matter of conviction or commitment.

This sparked some sort of neo-debate between someone who sounded sort of Calvinist and someone else who sounded sort of Arminian. If you don't understand those two terms...good for you!

Given the fact that there is a difference between the two, my assertion is that sometimes I am called upon to demonstrate 100% commitment in spite of the fact that I lack 100% conviction. In fact, my level of conviction is likely to waver from time to time, but this does not mean that my level of commitment must waver along with it.

Sunday morning I told about a time when I was talked into going bungee jumping. I don't know if you've ever participated in this sort of thing, but let me tell you: it's a rush! When I went, I was taken into a small, square, wood-paneled room. While I was in there I watched an instructional video that explained all the math and physics involved in bungee jumping. I was told how the harness worked and how much pressure the cord could stand. I was shown how the whole thing was rigged and anchored. In short, everything they could think of to assuage my fears was explained in great detail.

I was 100% convinced.

But I was a pretty safe distance from the platform I was going to jump from. As I walked closer and closer to the edge and stared out into the abyss...what do you suppose happened to my level of conviction?

No new information had been introduced into the equation. The math and physics still held. But my conviction wavered. Greatly.

Still...if I was, say, 85% convinced, I couldn't simply commit 85% to jumping. No, with bungee jumping, you're either in or you're out. You either jump 100%, or you don't jump at all.

A 100% commitment was required in spite of my lack of 100% conviction.

It's that way with marriage. It's that way with being a parent. It's that way with many of the biggest decisions in life.

And it's that way with faith.

Now, don't mishear me. I'm not saying you should skip the instructional video. I'm not saying you should blow off the math and the physics. You should investigate to make sure things are anchored properly, and licenses are up to date. Call the Better Business Bureau. Do whatever form of investigation you think is warranted.

Just now that when you're standing on the edge of the platform, your conviction level is likely to waver.

The question is: Will you allow your wavering conviction level to keep you from experiencing the rush of free-falling through the sky?

Faith and Baseball (part 2)

My cyberfriend Douglas Young left a good comment about yesterday's post:

So immersed in the community of the Braves, listening to announcers, reading the stats (facts), and being engulfed in the culture, you adopted a set of convictions because of the experience altogether. It makes perfect sense!

The similarities may be easy to spot, but let's go over them just to make sure. Often, people who don't embrace the convictions or beliefs of the Christian faith find themselves hanging around lots of Christian people, listening to Christian speakers, reading the Bible for themselves and learning the Christian culture. Then -- gradually -- over time they find themselves rooting for the Christian story to be true. Eventually, they may become convinced that it is, in fact, true.

They may not be able to point to a definitive moment when they first believed. They may not even be aware of their newly formed beliefs at first. They may not want to admit these beliefs at first, but -- like it or not -- that's what they believe now!

And I say all of that to say this: We do not choose our beliefs; more often than not, it seems almost as if our beliefs choose us. People who work with students often say it this way: sometimes you have to belong before you can believe. We might go further and say that some people must belong in order to believe.

And now we find ourselves back at our original question, which is whether Christianity is more a matter of conviction or a matter of commitment. It would seem from what we're saying here that commitment comes first and conviction comes as a byproduct.

But enough about what I think. What do you think? Does this whole "faith and baseball" analogy stand up? And, if so, what are the practical ramifications of thinking about faith development along these lines?

Sometimes Faith is Like Baseball

Of course, I am prone to saying that everything is at least a little like baseball, but this time I really mean it. Faith can be like a particular aspect of baseball that I'd like to talk about today: being a fan. When I was growing up in southern California, I rooted for the Dodgers. Yes, the Angels were closer to my house, but even at an early age I realized the the designated hitter was a corruption of the purity of the game. The National League team closest to my house was the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that was my team.

But then something happened when I was in high school. My parents moved me to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia -- home of the Braves. Now, it's important to remember that this was before the Braves were good. They were terrible, in fact. And the Dodgers were good.

I, of course, went to old Fulton County Stadium every time the Dodgers came to town (which was frequent back then because both teams played in the same division). And I always rooted for the Dodgers. I was no fickle fan.

But something began to happen. See, more than I love any particular team, I've always loved the game. So, I've always loved watching the game, but I lived in Atlanta. The only teams I got to see were the Braves and whoever was playing the Braves. When I listened to the radio, who were they talking about? The Braves. When I read the Sports Page, who were they writing about? The Braves.

I was submerged in the Braves culture, and -- gradually -- I came to learn a great deal about the team, about the owner, about the manager, about the players. I knew their names and where they'd gone to school. I knew their batting average and their ERA. They weren't such bad guys.

I decided that I could root for them as long as they weren't playing my beloved Dodgers. That was the line I drew.

But one muggy September night in 1987, something really devastating happened. I went out to the stadium and sat in the bleachers like always. Back then you could smoke in the bleachers, and I had a really stinky, cheap cigar with me. I was one of about 50 people scattered here and there in the seats (I honestly just looked it up, and there were officially 14,090 people in attendance that night). The Dodgers were in town, and I was wearing my Dodger blue cap.

The Braves jumped to an early lead, but the Dodgers got six runs in the 4th inning. They added two more in the top of the 7th and were winning 8-4. I knew intellectually that I should be happy about this.

Except I wasn't. I was trying to manufacture it, because the people near me were giving me a hard time for wearing the visiting team's colors. But something inside me felt a little...I don't

Then the Braves started a rally in the bottom of the 7th inning, and to my shock and horror, I felt a little twinge of excitement. I could not believe this! What was happening to me? The Braves kept chipping away at the lead, and the tighter the score became, the more excited I got.

By the end of the inning, they'd tied the score, and I found myself cheering them on with all the other bleacher bums. As the game stretched on into extra innings, I came to a startling realization: I had become a Braves fan. I'm not sure when or how it happened exactly. I can't point you to a moment in time or an intentional choice. All I know is that I found myself rooting for the Braves. I really wanted them to win, even though it meant defeating the team I'd cheered for since I was young.

My fandom snuck up on me.

When Ken Griffey doubled home a run in the bottom of the 10th inning, the few people who had stayed for the duration jumped and screamed and clapped and high-fived each other. And I wanted to be part of that celebration. But I had that Dodger blue cap on my head. So, I congratulated the people around me, and I left -- with my convictions shaken.

Now, let's process this together, okay? How is this story of how I became a fan of the Atlanta Braves similar to faith?

Conviction vs. Commitment

In this sermon series I'm doing at River Park Community Church (which you can find here), I talked yesterday about a story from Mark 9. But before I got into the story, I set it up with some basic observations about the nature of faith. The first observation I made is that there is a fundamental difference between conviction and commitment.

Conviction is something I think and feel to be true. It's largely a matter of intellect and emotion. Convictions are settled in my heart and in my mind (and I realize I'm probably drawing a false distinction between those two -- what we refer to as your "heart" is really part of your "mind" -- and all of that is assuming you believe you actually have a "mind" and are more than simply a series of neurons firing randomly).

Commitment is an act of the will. Commitment is a matter of choice.

So, which is faith? Is faith a matter of conviction? Or is faith a matter of commitment? Or is faith some sort of secret blend of the two?